For the first time since 2018 and the beginning of head coach Kara Lawson’s tenure, Duke will be playing in the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils are a No. 3 seed and, as such, will host the first two rounds at home in Durham. Here are five things to look out for as Duke takes on No. 14-seed Iona in Cameron Indoor Stadium at 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
Day-Wilson bounces back
While sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson has had an excellent season, her play has been a little spotty down the stretch. In a quarterfinal victory against North Carolina, she had just five points on 1-for-7 shooting. Against Virginia Tech in a semifinal loss, she put up five points, this time shooting a meager 2-for-12.
Senior guard Celeste Taylor will likely be the focus of the Gael defense Saturday. Day-Wilson needs to capitalize on that by both facilitating scoring opportunities for her teammates and creating open looks for herself. The sophomore has the ability to take over games and has done as much in the past. If she can make herself a greater scoring threat, particularly as a shot-maker, then she will be able to stretch Iona thin and create more offense for Duke, an area in which the team has struggled this year.
Duke’s defense is one of the strongest in the nation, but the Blue Devils have at times floundered on the offensive end of the floor. In its win against the Tar Heels, Duke scored just 44 points. In its ACC tournament semifinal loss to the Hokies, the Blue Devils put up an even lower 37. Duke’s scoring offense as a whole has ranked poorly compared to the team’s overall AP ranking, sitting at No. 209 per Her Hoop Stats.
In games in which opponents have managed to limit Duke’s transition scoring, the Blue Devils have fared poorly. In three games against North Carolina, the Blue Devils were held to zero fast-break points, and two of those three games were losses. Lawson understands the importance of picking up the offensive pace, too.
“When we’ve had games where we’ve been able to get points in transition, we’ve been better,” said Lawson after Sunday's selection show. “If you look at the games where we’ve struggled to score, we’ve had not a lot out of transition.”
Feed off the crowd
One of the biggest advantages that top-four seeds in the NCAA tournament hold is that they host their first two games of what is often a grueling gauntlet. As a No. 3 seed, Duke will indeed host its games in the Round of 64 and (potentially) the Round of 32 in Cameron Indoor. One of the reasons that the men’s and women’s teams have combined for just one home loss this season is because of the huge homecourt advantage that Cameron Indoor offers.
This Saturday will be no different. As the team has continued to climb in the AP Poll and in the ACC standings, attendance has similarly increased. Now, as the Blue Devils head into the single-elimination postseason, large, Duke-friendly crowds can be expected. The Blue Devils should aim to use the crowd’s energy to fuel it, giving Duke that extra boost it needs down the stretch as the time between games gets shorter and the competition gets stronger.
“We’re confident playing in Cameron, and we have loved playing in front of the Duke community all year. It’s been awesome,” said Lawson, “… It’s an opportunity if you just like college basketball, to come to Cameron and watch some really good teams play.”
“It's always been a dream of mine to play in the tournament … it's just a surreal moment,” junior guard Vanessa de Jesus said Friday. “I'm just so excited to finally play here at home.”
The central tenet of Duke’s game all year has been defense. As mentioned above, the Blue Devils are one of the top scoring defenses in the country, allowing 50.8 points per game. Against an Iona squad that likely has not encountered this level of defensive intensity in its regular-season schedule, the Blue Devils need to capitalize.
“It is kind of hard for teams to match up against us the first time because they don't know the pressure defense that we play, but we're going out there like every other game and just applying pressure in every way we can,” said Taylor.
The Gaels have already struggled to score this year, averaging just 63.4 points per game and ranking 195th in scoring offense. Iona has also not played any Power Five opponents this season. The combination of those two factors could make Saturday night’s game a bit of a system shock for the Gaels, especially early in the game. Duke should leap at that opportunity.
“We can impact and disrupt a lot of the time,” said Lawson. “... I can’t say whether it’s harder the first time or the second time, I probably have to ask the opponents, but we hope it’s hard every time.”
There is a lot of noise around Duke this year. The Blue Devils’ ascent to the AP Top 25 was rapid. Duke is a strong team with one of the best players in the country in Taylor and a coach with experience at every level.
That being said, the Blue Devils are also largely an inexperienced team. Most of the squad has not seen NCAA tournament action before, and even Lawson herself has only ever participated as a player. Duke needs to stay focused on winning, play its particular brand of basketball and ultimately not listen to whatever the outside world has to say about its chances.
“You just got to really focus on your game and if we don't focus on it, we'll get beat,” Lawson said Friday. “That's the way March works and we have to just stay locked into Iona and give our best effort and hopefully at the end of that game, we'll win it.”
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