Duke women's basketball finds happy medium between scoring, defense in blowout win against Iona

The Blue Devil bench celebrates during their home rout of Iona in the NCAA tournament Saturday night.
The Blue Devil bench celebrates during their home rout of Iona in the NCAA tournament Saturday night.

Balance is the antithesis to chaos. When it is maintained the opportunity to thrive remains. However, when it is tipped or shattered all together, everything is put into shambles.

Duke has shown that it can score in a hurry in matchups like its 77-62 win against N.C. State in February. It has also shown that it can slow the pace down and play some of the most suffocating defense in the country in matchups like it 44-40 win against North Carolina at the ACC tournament.

However, one-dimensional showings like those are not sustainable and inevitably lead to performances like the Blue Devils’ 57-70 loss to Florida State and their 58-37 loss to Virginia Tech — instances in which their renowned defensive presence vanishes in high-scoring affairs, or when their offense becomes debilitating. 

There is a happy medium that the third-seeded Blue Devils should strive for, and the results look like Saturday's 89-49 win against No. 14-seed Iona in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“I thought all of our players that played tonight were really locked in to what we were trying to do,” said head coach Kara Lawson after the game. “And that's what you hope for as a coach in March, you hope that your team is locked in and playing with great intensity, playing with great effort, and our group did that tonight.”

Balance was the key in this dominating performance, as there was an equilibrium between the Blue Devils’ execution on both ends of the floor. Defensively, Duke took away Iona’s strengths and forced the visitors out of their comfort zone. Coming into the game, the Gaels were shooting 40% from three on the season, good for second-best in the country. However, Duke managed to hold them to just 20% from behind the line on 10 attempts, just more than half of their season average of 19. 

“Defense throughout the year has been something that we put our hat to and we keep trying to get better and better at,” said Jordyn Oliver. “We knew coming in that they were a good 3-point shooting team, and we knew that we were going to have to limit their 3-point attempts so that we could win the game, so we just kept working on it.”

Does this sound familiar? That is because the Blue Devils’ defense is at its best when it is able to force opponents to beat them in different ways.

Against Louisville, a team that shoots 34.5% from deep on the season, Duke was able to hold the Cardinals to just 25% three-point shooting in a 63-56 win. Against Virginia, a team averaging 15.2 assists per game, the Blue Devils limited the Cavaliers to just five and 11 assists, respectively, in two wins. Against Syracuse, a team with a star player in Dyaisha Fair who averages 19.9 points per game, Duke was able to hold her to just 12 points on 4-of-18 shooting to go along with five turnovers in the Blue Devil win.

Offensively, Duke is at its best when it is playing fast and getting to it in transition, rather than relying on stagnating half-court offense to generate points. 

“We've just tried to work through the year to continue to get better at converting [transition opportunities],” said Lawson. “There have been some games where our conversion rate was very low. We've kept working on it and done transition work every day in practice. ... When you can score when you have a numbers situation and you're getting downhill, it makes the game a little bit easier. You're not having to go against the set half-court defense the entire time.”

In its win against Iona, Duke had 14 fast-break points and 30 points off turnovers. This is what allowed it to make run after run, and it is why its offense never slowed down throughout the course of the game.

In contrast, Duke only had five fast-break points in its blowout loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament. In their three outings against North Carolina, despite getting a win in one of them, the Blue Devils did not accumulate a single fast-break point. Transition points are quick, easy and momentum shifters. In order to score effectively, Duke needs to continue to excel in that aspect of the offense.

Balance is excelling equally on both ends of the floor, but it is also an element within the rotation. True balance cannot be attained until there is stability in the depth of the roster.

Against Iona, the Blue Devils piled up a staggering 42 bench points, their most since their 100-point game against Richmond in December. It will be hard to beat a Duke team that is getting consistent production deep into its bench.

“I think that our depth has been a strength of ours all season long,” said Lawson. “Our 10-player rotation has been key all year, our bench has been key for us all year, we have very little drop-off from our starters to our bench.”

Offense, defense and depth are the three components of the balance necessary for Duke to make a run in the NCAA tournament. Its first-round rout of Iona set the precedent with a masterful execution of all three. How well the Blue Devils can keep this up against increasingly stiff competition will determine how far they go.


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