One of Duke head coach Kara Lawson’s biggest points of emphasis last season was the Blue Devils’ lack of discipline. As the in-conference losses piled up, the line that was repeated each time was that the team was simply playing without discipline, and you can’t win without discipline.
For most of this season, Duke has had that problem fixed. After a Dec. 11 win at Florida Gulf Coast, Lawson praised the Blue Devils for being “very, very disciplined [for] four quarters.” After winning their first matchup against Virginia Tech, Lawson described how their success had been contingent upon “stay[ing] disciplined within our scheme.” After their Feb. 12 win against Miami, Lawson noted some offensive issues, but said “I thought, defensively, we were very disciplined.”
Over the last couple of weeks, however, Duke’s discipline has waned. Lawson said of its Feb. 21 loss to Virginia Tech, “you have to be sharp, and you have to be disciplined, and we were neither of those things and we paid the price for it.” After the Blue Devils allowed Virginia back into the game late in their Feb. 19 win, Lawson noted that “right before we got a five-second call, [I told them] not to get a five-second call.” She again cited “not great execution by us” after their Feb. 22 home loss to North Carolina.
Then came Saturday afternoon's ACC tournament semifinal, in which No. 2-seed Duke scored its fewest points of the season and was out of contention after giving up a 17-0 second-quarter run to the third-seeded Hokies. The Blue Devils lost 58-37, and when asked about the team’s biggest issue, forward Elizabeth Balogun said:
“It just felt like just a lack of discipline. … We had a scheme to go over the first ball screen and just chase them off the line, and we just didn't do that. In transition, we just got loose with the shooters, and didn't pick them up early. For whatever reason, we just [had] no energy on defense, just a little bit lower than normal.”
“Discipline” is a bit of a nebulous concept. If a team is not sticking to its game plan, then it is not playing disciplined; but if it sticks to the game plan and simply does not play well anyway, then it technically is disciplined, but the result is largely the same. So it can be hard to tell the difference between a lack of discipline and poor play. And in regards to those factors’ bearing on the outcome of a game, it is a distinction without a difference.
But the difference between “lack of discipline” and “poor play” is extremely important for a coach, since it dictates how to address a team’s problems. For the Blue Devil offense, their lack of production across the season (they rank 68th in Her Hoop Stats offensive rating) is just poor play; “discipline” isn’t the reason they scored nearly four times less efficiently than the Hokies on catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy. On the other hand, Duke’s defense allowing more than a dozen open jump shots to Virginia Tech was certainly a matter of poor discipline.
“We were not as disciplined as we needed to be defensively in that first half, and as a result, they got open looks,” said Lawson. “When you give them open looks, they're probably the best team in the league at making you pay for it.”
There were more than a couple of times in the first half when Lawson had to scream from the sideline because the Blue Devils were not following their game plan of switching 1-through-4, and another occasion when guard Celeste Taylor gave Balogun an earful for sagging off of Virginia Tech sharpshooter Cayla King and allowing an open transition three.
The Hokies were generally stifled when Duke executed its game plan, but repeatedly found the bottom of the net when they could force a defender to miss their assignment. There was not just one culprit for the Blue Devils: One of Virginia Tech’s buckets came after Balogun could not chase over a ball screen, triggering a switch that allowed Georgia Amoore to get downhill and find an open dump-off; another open corner three for Amoore was caused by wing Reigan Richardson being unprepared to defend a double drag and forcing Duke into rotation.
“We just were not disciplined in our scheme,” said Lawson. “And we gave them clean looks at threes, which was not the game plan. They made us pay. … Just losing people, not having an awareness, not being in airspace when they catch it.”
That was not the biggest cause for concern that Duke had, though. That issue came midway through the third quarter, after the Blue Devils made a halftime course correction and found a good level of execution, helping open the frame on a 6-0 run. They had a chance to build momentum as the quarter wore on, but once Hokie head coach Kenny Brooks noticed Duke had changed from going over ball screens to hedging, he drew up a set to take advantage of that coverage.
Virginia Tech ran that set, an empty Spain pick-and-roll at the wing, on back-to-back plays, with Amoore as the second screener. Both times she popped to the wing, was wide open, and canned a three. And that was the reddest flag for the Blue Devils: As soon as they finally settled into their game plan, an excellent tactician across the scorer’s table immediately found a way to exploit it.
“I don't think they were supposed to [switch],” said Hokie center Elizabeth Kitley. “I heard Coach Lawson getting mad at them for switching. … [That set] is actually a little wrinkle that we put in because I think they were expecting something else, then they felt like they had to desperately switch.”
Most teams are not as tough to defend as Virginia Tech, and most coaches are not as good of play-callers as Brooks. But once Duke starts getting into the NCAA tournament, it will be up against teams that will adapt as the game wears on. The Blue Devils cannot afford to keep taking whole halves to find their footing, or the opponent will always be one step ahead.
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