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'We can get there': Inside Duke women’s basketball’s swift rise to ACC contention

<p>Kara Lawson huddles with her team during a December 2022 win at N.C. State — before Duke cracked the AP Top 25.</p>

Kara Lawson huddles with her team during a December 2022 win at N.C. State — before Duke cracked the AP Top 25.

On Dec. 21, 2021, the 16th-ranked Blue Devils routed Charleston Southern 78-35 to finish an impressive nonconference slate 9-1, the lone loss a single-digit defeat to future national champion South Carolina. One year after the COVID-19 pandemic cut head coach Kara Lawson’s first season short, a new era of Duke women’s basketball looked to be on the horizon. 

But when ACC play hit, Duke could never find its footing. Plagued by injuries and inconsistent play, the team lost three games in a row on multiple occasions and slumped to a 7-11 conference record, finishing 10th in the league. 

Fast forward one year, and Duke is the No. 2 seed entering the ACC tournament, one game behind Notre Dame. However, the situation in December was eerily similar to last year, as the Blue Devils entered ACC play with a 10-1 record, the sole blemish again to a very talented UConn team. Understandably, there was skepticism on whether the Blue Devils could perform at a high level during the conference slate, especially with the depth of the league this season. 

Duke passed that test with flying colors.

“Last year, we were the 10th-place team in the league playing on Wednesday [in the ACC tournament],” said Lawson Monday. “It's hard to move up one spot in this league, but to move up eight spots in the standings is a remarkable job by our players.”

It truly is remarkable that the team has come this far, so what are the key factors that have contributed to this turnaround?

Changes in the offseason

Before the season, Lawson’s message was clear.

“Consistency is where we need to improve: be more consistent defensively, be more consistent offensively, be more consistent on the glass,” said Lawson at ACC Tipoff Oct. 11. “The way to do that is to compete hard with one another.”

If that was the recipe for success, the Blue Devils cooked it to perfection. They have formed a team identity by playing consistently on the defensive end of the floor. No matter if the Blue Devils are up or down in the game, it is evident that they play hard and play together. 

With the loss of the two top frontcourt pieces, Onome Akinbode-James and Jade Williams, along with a slew of key pieces, Lawson needed to revamp the roster. To do this, she turned to the increasingly important transfer portal. The core of the team — guards Shayeann Day-Wilson and Celeste Taylor and wing Elizabeth Balogun — remained intact, but the supporting pieces that Lawson brought in have made a great impact this season. 

“A big emphasis for us in the portal was to fortify the frontcourt and bring in size,” said Lawson. “You don't just want size, you want talent coupled with it.”

She pointed out that this was her first fully recruited freshman class, and the three freshmen added to the talent and depth of this team. Ten players average double-digit minutes per game, and six of those are transfers or freshmen. 

In addition, assistant head coach Beth Cunningham moved on to a head coaching position, and Lawson filled her spot with a well-respected and experienced coach: Karen Lange. The former Georgia associate head coach specializes on working with guards, and as a former point guard herself and teammate of assistant coach Tia Jackson, she brought familiarity and a veteran presence to the staff.

Sophomore guard Reigan Richardson, one of the impact transfers that Lawson nabbed at the beginning of the season, coincidentally also came from Georgia and had a special relationship with Lange. 

“She's always been there for me. She's someone I can come to not just for basketball but for other things outside of that, so I love coach Karen,” said Richardson at the team’s preseason media day.

Lawson has not been shy in praising her staff for the improvement of this team, especially during the offseason. She was in Australia coaching with USA Basketball during those months and credits the assistants for working closely with the players. 

“Man, can [the staff] coach defense; they could play it as players and they can really coach it,” said Lawson in a Jan. 17 availability. “Karen kind of runs our defense and she deserves a ton of credit for how our defense has changed.”

Dive into the numbers

To say the defense has improved is an understatement. There has been a complete transformation that has turned the Blue Devil defense into a nationally terrifying unit. Duke is allowing a mere 50.9 points per game, good for third in the country, and has only allowed 60-plus points in five games. The team is 23-1 when it keeps opponents under that number, with the lone loss coming 45-41 in Sunday’s regular-season finale to North Carolina.

“If you look at our numbers from last year, we were a poor defensive team and that was my fault as a coach,” said Lawson Jan. 10. “I'm really looking for improving defensive points per possession.”

That is one stat that has progressed in a large way. Last season, Duke allowed 0.76 points per play, which was in the 65th percentile nationally, per Her Hoop Stats. However, that number has decreased to 0.66, now good for the 99th percentile. 

“We're really working on being disruptive defensively. We want to try and force turnovers,” said Lawson at preseason media day.

Another goal achieved. Duke has forced 536 opposing turnovers in 29 games this season, 101 more than last season's 30-game total. Tenacious defense and the full-court press has given opposing offenses nightmares, and Lawson has set out a clear philosophy that her team has embraced. The lethal combination of depth and aggressive defense is what really wears teams out, and Duke has won multiple games by effectively shutting down opposing offenses in the second half.

“The goal is to get [opponents] taking a contested shot, and one of them. We don't always make our goals but that's what we’re shooting for,” said Lawson. 

“Every game against every team we play we emphasize defense, defense, defense,” said Balogun after a Jan. 1 win against Louisville. “When we step on the court, we know defense comes first.”

Offensively, the numbers are similar from a year ago, and there is a legitimate argument to be made that Duke had a more potent offensive team last year.

Slow offense has cost the team in multiple games, including its most recent loss to North Carolina. It is undeniable that the offense will need to improve for the Blue Devils to do some damage in March. There are times when Duke can not buy a shot from the field — including its six-point fourth quarter against Miami and 10-point second quarter against Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, these both ended up as victories, because what has made this team so successful is that even when the offense is struggling, the defense does not skip a beat. 

“They don't get affected on the defensive end when they're struggling offensively and that's something that happens to a lot of players,” said Lawson after defeating Pittsburgh Feb. 2. 

The intangibles

While the numbers emphasize the improvement on the defensive end, there are some things that they can not explain. This Duke team has shown elite fight game-in and game-out, along with a serious will to win. 

“I don't think you can watch our team and not like how they play and not get behind them, because they play so gosh darn hard,” said Lawson after a victory against Virginia Tech Jan. 26. . 

Take Duke’s win at Notre Dame. Down three with 15 seconds left, Fighting Irish junior guard Olivia Miles broke the Blue Devil press and drove down the court. Richardson, who was at the top of the press, sprinted all the way back down the court and stole Miles’ pass, clinching the Duke victory. 

“If Reigan gives anything less than 100% on that sprint, it's a layup for them,” said Lawson following the win. “I think it just speaks to her and to our team of really wanting to put everything they can into these games.”

The star for this team has unquestionably been Taylor, who leads the team in scoring but provides so much value outside of shooting that helps Duke win. According to Her Hoop Stats, Taylor records a defensive win share of 3.7, meaning that Taylor has produced roughly that many wins for the Blue Devils solely based on her defensive performances. 

The ACC Defensive Player of the Year has more than double the amount of steals of any other player on her team, and her sheer commitment to defense is what has impressed Lawson from the start. Aside from her numbers, it is the little things that make Taylor invaluable to this group.

“She's a non-traditional star on a non-traditional team,” said Lawson after Duke’s Feb. 7 win at Notre Dame. “The story of Celeste for us is that if we need something done that's going to change the game from losing to winning, you put Celeste Taylor on the job. I don't know of a higher compliment you can give a player than that.”

In Duke’s recent 77-62 victory over N.C. State, Taylor made numerous defensive plays, including a chase-down block on Wolfpack forward Mimi Collins and multiple deflections in the final two minutes of the first half, to swing the momentum onto the Blue Devils’ side. 

“When you have teammates that want to win just as badly as you do, it makes things a lot easier,” said Taylor after the game. “They're willing to do whatever it is that needs to be done in order for us to win.”

There is no quantifying grit, but there is no question that this team has the heart of a lion. The players are fully bought into achieving success, and Lawson highlights that as the number one reason for this improvement. 

“Ultimately, the goal is to win a national championship and an ACC championship,” said Taylor at ACC Tipoff. “If we just focus on the present moment and just continue to get better each day, we can get there.” 

Although that goal may have seemed unreasonable at the time, it is certainly attainable now ahead of Friday’s quarterfinal at the ACC tournament. The Blue Devils are lightyears ahead of original projections — Duke was picked seventh in the league in the preseason media poll. However, the team ignored the outside noise, staying focused on its goals and the task at hand. 

Lawson summed it up best.

“I don't really believe in timelines because I think when you set them, you predestine yourself to meet the timeline, and never be ahead of it,” she said Feb. 21. “I’m not very patient … I don't think there's a timeline here. I think you win when you can and so that's what our goal was all along.”

“Our team plays hard and they play together,” Lawson said after Duke’s Jan. 26 win against Virginia Tech. “I think they're representing this school and Duke basketball in an incredible way right now.”

Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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