Mistakes happen to everyone. They are a learning opportunity, and one can demonstrate their strengths by improving from them.
However, for the 16th-ranked Blue Devils, mistakes have become critical on the offensive end and have begun to hold this team back. Head coach Kara Lawson has repeatedly singled out turnovers as an issue she wants to improve, and in Duke’s losses, these self-inflicted wounds have stuck out as a common denominator.
In Duke’s 54-43 win Thursday against Pittsburgh, the Blue Devils committed 19 turnovers, higher than their prior average of 15.3 per game. Although Duke was able to win, the Panthers were able to keep the game interesting well into the second half, in part because of Duke's carelessness offensively.
“We're just not playing well on offense right now,” said Lawson. “There's no doubt we're going to have to play better offensively to win more games as we get down the stretch.”
Defensively, Duke has been stifling all season, forcing opponents to a turnover rate of 24.0%, good for 28th in the country. However, the offensive side has been a different story, as the Blue Devils rank outside of the national top 100 in turnovers committed per game and turnover rate.
Against Pittsburgh, the Blue Devil offense struggled to find consistency, and while there were glimpses of cohesiveness, the majority of the game represented Duke trying to find its footing and figure out how to best attack the Panthers’ matchup zone.
“I'm not gonna say it was all us, they did do a good job defensively,” said Lawson. “I did think we weren't in a rhythm of when to shoot or when to pass.”
Tight passes were a double-edged sword in the game. Some led to the plethora of turnovers, while others represented extremely precise offensive execution.
On the first possession of the game, sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson found junior center Kennedy Brown for a layup on a beautiful play. To open the second quarter, junior guard Jordyn Oliver connected on two layups that were both a result of excellent interior passing. Duke scored 26 points in the paint, which is especially remarkable against a zone defense. This shows that the team was able to find cutters and feed the bigs inside.
“I thought both [Day-Wilson] and Vanessa [de Jesus] really looked to probe. I thought [Oliver] in the first half cut really well and got some opportunities,” said Lawson. “We have the roster to be good against zones, we've just got to keep refining our approach with it.”
However, to begin the second half, a similar pass to Brown was intercepted by the Pittsburgh defense. Within the first five minutes of the third quarter, the Blue Devils committed five turnovers, allowing the Panthers to climb back into the contest. Some passes appeared forced and there was a general sense of hesitancy from the team.
“It's a balance, and they're trying to figure out what's a good shot and what's not a good shot,” said Lawson. “I think we have to keep teaching and showing them on film where we can make better decisions, because we do have really good offensive players on our team.”
In fairness, most of the turnovers were due to players trying to move the ball offensively to look for the open player. Despite the mistakes, there were many examples of elite ball movement. Throughout all of the adversity, the Blue Devils have shown their grit and will to win.
“I was proud of their fight,” said Lawson. “They have a lot of pride and they really want to win games.”
It has been difficult recently for senior guard Celeste Taylor, the team’s leading scorer who scored 13 points Thursday, who has been going through a bit of a slump offensively. Nevertheless, for a team that plays so well on the defensive end, cutting down the number of empty possessions would go a long way for the Blue Devils moving forward.
While the offensive discipline might not have been up to par, a bright spot was on the defensive end. Duke allowed 44 points and only committed 10 fouls, a stark contrast to the 23 fouls committed in Sunday’s loss against Florida State. The defense did not skip a beat and gave up its fewest points to an ACC opponent all season.
“They don't get affected on the defensive end when they're struggling offensively and that's something that happens to a lot of players,” said Lawson. “So we have a mature group in that way.”
Duke did not commit a turnover for the final eight minutes of the game, and the offense clicked much better. The defense has already proven to be elite, and as a result, the team is leading one of the best conferences in the country. There is still ample time for the Blue Devils to learn from these mistakes, and the desire to improve and be successful should certainly not be questioned.
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