No. 9 Duke women's basketball fends off Virginia in road finale to keep pace atop ACC

Celeste Taylor in Duke's win at Virginia, its final road game of the season.
Celeste Taylor in Duke's win at Virginia, its final road game of the season.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—The toughness of a giant is not measured by how they beat up on foes beneath them, but rather how they withstand the blows of those hungry to knock them off. The Blue Devils demonstrated that in their nail-biting 56-52 win against an intense Virginia team to move one win closer to an ACC title.

The Cavaliers, despite their low standing in the conference, always appeared to believe in their ability to win this game. They charged with intensity on the shoulders of senior guard Taylor Valladay and a crowd of passionate home fans. However, Duke still managed to handle business inside John Paul Jones Arena behind Elizabeth Balogun and Celeste Taylor’s combined 20 points, as well as the impressive defense that fans have grown accustomed to.

“That's a very difficult game, I thought Virginia made things really hard for us,” head coach Kara Lawson said after the game. “The thing we're looking at coming out of this game that I'm most proud of is we finished the league year on the road at 6-3, which is pretty good for how good the league is and how tough it is to win on the road.”

A gritty win means some sloppy play kept it close. The Blue Devils (23-4, 13-3 in the ACC) shot just 2-of-9 from the line, including crucial late-game misses. They also had 18 turnovers, which continues to be a late-season issue for the team.

“It's really hard to step up there and make [free throws] when the crowds are loud and the game is really close,” said Lawson. “That would have made it a little less dramatic, on our end at least, if we were able to make those free throws, but you got to have confidence.”

The energy of the game truly began to reach its climax in the third quarter. In front of a roaring crowd of 6,378, Virginia went on a 10-0 run to cut the score to 42-39 after Duke dominated the first half with lights-out shooting from behind the arc. In a game in which the Cavaliers never let up, this was the way that the visitors were able to finally break away. Duke went 3-for-5 from deep in the quarter, including three straight to produce a 9-2 run. 

The Blue Devils got up by as much as 13 points midway through the third, but where many opponents might have folded, the Cavaliers began to thrive. Come the fourth quarter, the stadium was roaring and the crowd was completely into it. It was as if the Blue Devils had a sixth opponent on the floor at all times. Virginia’s momentum from the third trickled into the final period, as it pushed Duke to the edge and made it as close as 47-45 Duke with just less than nine minutes on the clock.

Valladay, who led the Cavaliers with 19 points and recorded three steals, came down hard on a shot attempt a few minutes into the final frame and was forced to sit for a while. This was, however, far from a break for the Blue Devils, as it merely served to invigorate an already excited crowd. Duke’s maturity became very apparent from that point on, as it maintained composure and countered Virginia’s push to stave off an upset.

The game got off to a blazing start for both teams. After a messy tipoff, Duke sophomore Reigan Richardson converted on the first shot of the game. Taylor followed by doing what she does best, stealing from the opposition and setting up Balogun for a three. 

Virginia responded, however, with a three of its own and back-to-back baskets by Valladay, who seemed to initiate a spark for the Cavaliers. That spark quickly faded, as Duke turned its intensity up a gear out of a timeout. The Blue Devils tightened up their defense and attacked in transition, resulting in an 8-0 run to seize a 17-10 run.

The pacing in the second period was the opposite of the first. The game slowed down, featuring half-court offense and longer possessions. This hurt Duke’s efficiency early on, as its shot attempts were not coming nearly as easily as they were in the first. The visiting team’s field goal percentage dropped from 60% in the opening quarter to 40% in the second. 

It was not until midway through the quarter that the Blue Devils began to settle down and pick apart the Cavalier defense. Led by Valladay, though, Virginia never allowed Duke to build much momentum. The Virginia senior, along with Balogun, highlighted the end of the half with a duel of stars. Valladay scored or assisted on Virginia’s last eight points of the half, while Balogun scored Duke’s last six, an impact that would continue from the two for the rest of the game.

“It's really hard mentally to lose a game and then the next game come back with confidence, and come back with individual confidence and team confidence and win, and that's one of the things I'm most proud about this group,” said Lawson.

The Blue Devils return home Thursday at 8 p.m. for a rematch with N.C. State at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where they are still undefeated with two games to play. Duke defeated the Wolfpack 72-58 in Raleigh Dec. 29.


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