CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Duke head coach Kara Lawson entered the press conference, put her head in her hand and started off her opening statement: “I don’t really know what to say, to be honest with you. I’m giving you guys terrible quotes here.”
It was not that everything went wrong for Lawson in the previous 40 minutes, in which No. 9 Duke held on to hand Virginia a 56-52 loss on its own court in Charlottesville. It is just that not much really went right. It was the best of times when Duke conquered a noble Notre Dame squad and nearly held Boston College to an all-time-low scoring output in the ACC record books. And then comes the worst of times, which has, looking back through this season, been the last week for Duke.
A season-high 6,378 fans packed John Paul Jones Arena Sunday afternoon. They were loud, energetic from the get-go, and they echoed even when Virginia trailed by 13. They had faith in the Cavaliers, who entered on a high note, having conquered then-No. 22 N.C. State 71-59 the Sunday prior — the Blue Devils, though, came to Charlottesville reeling after leaving Blacksburg, Va., Thursday with a 61-45 loss to No. 11 Virginia Tech.
Both teams opened trying to push the pace. Virginia lobbed the ball to senior guard Taylor Valladay so she could get to the rim. Duke tried to find junior center Kennedy Brown, but unsuccessfully. Cavalier forward Camryn Taylor limited the passing window for Duke, and as Virginia stacked its defenders in the paint, the Blue Devils’ offense had nowhere to go. Cue 18 turnovers for Duke and a total of four points for Brown. For Virginia, though, cue an unstoppable Valladay and 22 points off turnovers.
“In the first half, our transition defense was poor in the sense that our point guard wasn’t getting back as a safety … and they were getting behind our last line of defense in transition,” Lawson said after the game. “That was poor by us. And their pace was really good, so even when they did get the passes behind … we didn’t match up as well as we should have in some of those areas.”
But 50% shooting and a disruptive half-court defense was good enough for Duke to head into the break leading 33-27. It exited the half shooting 0-for-3 from the charity stripe, an unusually low mark for a team that once shot 15-for-15 against N.C. State, and exited the game shooting not much better at 2-for-9. The electric crowd — who in the second half would receive free bacon if Duke missed two free throws in a row, which it did — reveled in it.
“It would have made it a little less dramatic — on our end, at least — if we were able to make those free throws, but you gotta have confidence. You gotta keep stepping up,” Lawson said.
Beyond Duke’s woes at the charity stripe, shooting was not a staple of the second half. The Blue Devils spent nearly the last five minutes of the third quarter in a scoreless drought, and the the start of the fourth quarter featured a couple of turnovers. The transition offense was not working, the transition defense was not clicking, and it went from the best of times, a 13-point lead in the third from a Celeste Taylor-fueled rally from behind the arc, to the worst of times.
What so many love about sports, though, is that the best and worst of times can be minutes apart, days apart, seasons apart. There are highs and lows, and we love to see our favorite teams make a Disney movie comeback and our least favorites choke under the pressure. And all it really took for Duke to make it out of the worst times Sunday was moving the ball around. Instead of sending off-angle passes to Brown in the post, the Blue Devils began to pass and move into the right spots. The answer to Duke’s chaotic woes in Charlottesville, really, was “the simple play,” Lawson said.
The answer to Duke’s more long-term woes, though, is confidence.
“It's really hard mentally to lose a game and then the next game come back with confidence — to come back with individual confidence and team confidence and win, and that's one of the things I'm most proud about this group: you know, when you make a mistake or something doesn't go as well as you hoped it would, you don't wallow in it, you don't let it linger, then the next game you snap back,” Lawson said.
If Duke can remind everyone of its best times Thursday at home against N.C. State, then its recent speed bumps, including the near-upset outing in Charlottesville, will have all been worth it.
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.