In every March Madness nail-biter, the spotlight shines on the team that pulls off the miraculous win. However, every story also has to have its loser. In a fairytale finish gone wrong for the Blue Devils, their season ended in a heartbreaking overtime loss.
Entering Saturday’s contest against Colorado at Cameron Indoor Stadium, No. 3-seed Duke’s defense may well have been a brick wall. However, the sixth-seeded Buffaloes stampeded through the No. 2 scoring defense in the nation en route to beating the third-seeded Blue Devils 61-53 in overtime in the second round of the NCAA tournament. A near quadruple-double from senior guard Celeste Taylor — she had eight points, eight assists, 10 rebounds and 10 steals — was not enough to overcome a 17-point, 14-rebound performance from Colorado center Quay Miller.
“I was really proud of our group for fighting back,” head coach Kara Lawson said after the game. “We cut it to six at halftime, and then ultimately took the lead there in the fourth quarter. Just fought tooth and nail [in the] game, obviously went to overtime and they were better in that five-minute stretch. That's why they're moving on.”
The overtime period opened with two straight stops from Duke’s defense before sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson drew a foul on a layup attempt. The 69% free throw shooter converted just one from the line, which allowed junior Frida Formann to put Colorado back in front with a fadeaway jumper on the baseline. Freshman center Aaronette Vonleh extended the lead to three with her 10th points of the game and dropped in two more off an offensive rebound.
Down 56-51 with 45 seconds left, the Blue Devils were forced to foul, choosing to send Colorado’s Jaylyn Sherrod to the line. She converted one, and the Buffaloes then fouled senior forward Elizabeth Balogun while she was trapped in the corner. The Blue Devil made both without touching the rim, and another immediate foul put Colorado back on the line.
After Formann made both, Lawson called a timeout for what would be her team’s most important play of the season. A miss from sophomore guard Reigan Richardson — and a three that seemed inside the cylinder before rattling out from Day-Wilson — sealed Duke’s fate, marking a painful end to a remarkable season.
“What this group has done is really change how we're looked at after some down years, to come in and be a team that challenges in the ACC for the title,” Lawson said of the team’s legacy. “We hope to be that every year.”
To get to overtime, a third-quarter run fueled by Taylor’s relentlessness on defense and Richardson’s offensive explosion put the Blue Devils in the driver’s seat entering the game’s final 10 minutes, leading 43-39. However, it was not long until the Buffaloes retook the lead on a three from Formann, her first made triple of the game.
Balogun struck back with a clutch corner three to re-tie the game. On the next play, Taylor’s ninth steal of the game led to a transition layup for junior guard Vanessa de Jesus that brought Duke back in front 48-46.
But the game swung back when Sherrod drove through multiple Blue Devil defenders and finished for an and-one to again bring the game back to even. She missed the free throw, and with 27.6 seconds, the ball went into the hands of Day-Wilson. The sophomore came off a screen from junior center Kennedy Brown and fired a three that would have won the game. Instead, it glanced off the right side of the rim and pushed the game into overtime.
“I felt like we could get a screen and get [Day-Wilson] going to the right … I thought she got a fantastic, wide-open look that she just missed, but that's not obviously the reason we lost the game,” Lawson said of the final possession.
The game opened as a nightmare for Duke, with Colorado’s strength inside spurring a 15-4 run to begin the first quarter. The Buffaloes won the tip and immediately fed the ball to Vonleh in the post for a hook shot. In the game’s first five minutes, the duo of Vonleh and Miller combined for 13 points.
Even with Duke settling in and forcing difficult shots for Colorado, it ended the first quarter trailing 21-11. For a team that boasted one of the top defenses all season and regularly held opponents to single-digit scoring in a quarter, the Blue Devils were uncharacteristically porous in the paint. The Buffaloes repeatedly found seams to the basket or snagged offensive rebounds that led to extra possessions.
Early in the game, every small Duke victory was met with a punch in the mouth by Colorado, which refused to allow the home team to come within a possession before half. After Balogun shortened the deficit to five, the Buffaloes’ Tameiya Sadler stifled the crowd with a three. And following back-to-back makes from the Blue Devils that brought it within six, Miller retorted with two tough moves of her own. Graduate forward Mia Heide had an opportunity at the halftime buzzer, but she missed the layup and Duke entered the locker room trailing 32-26.
The Blue Devils left that locker room a completely different team. Where it struggled in the first half guarding the Buffaloes’ size inside, Duke manufactured tips and turnovers. Where it could not find an open shot in the halfcourt, it began to drain jump shots around the court. When all was said and done in the third quarter, the Blue Devils had turned a six-point deficit into a four-point lead.
“We knew [we were] gonna fight back. We're fighters, you know, we're soldiers,” Taylor said of the team’s character. “We come to battle every single night, so we [knew] we were gonna get ourselves back into the game.”
Even with their valiant resurgence in the second half and their insistence to play through every moment until the final buzzer, Duke could not come out on top against a talented Colorado squad. Despite earning a top-four seed and the right to host the first two rounds, the Blue Devils’ season ended before they could travel to Seattle to continue in the NCAA tournament.
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Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.