NEW YORK—Duke head coach Kara Lawson prides herself on a slow-moving, defensive-centric gameplan. A trip into the Lions’ den sparked the opposite: a fast-paced, end-to-end battle. In the end, the Blue Devils barely escaped with a 66-62 victory thanks to a clutch two-point jumper from sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson with 17.1 seconds left.
“This wasn’t a great performance by us at all,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “But in the midst of poor performance, we were able to make the plays we needed tonight, so I’m proud of that, and certainly a win is a win.”
The Lions gave Duke (3-0) problems throughout the contest, and nowhere was that more prevalent than in the middle of the fourth quarter, when Columbia (1-2) suddenly came to life down by 10. Star senior guard Abbey Hsu, who finished the contest with 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting, converted a three before snagging a rebound on the following possession which led to a Kitty Henderson triple. That shot cut the lead to four. Then, Lion freshman Riley Weiss got a step on Blue Devil senior center Kennedy Brown, who converted an easy layup. After another Duke miss, Henderson converted a layup over the outstretched arms of Blue Devil graduate forward Camilla Emsbo, completing the 10-0 run and tying the game at 60 with 2:26 left.
With the crowd inside of Levien Gym alive, Duke maturely caught its breath and retook control. A Reigan Richardson catch-and-shoot from the elbow gave Duke a two-point advantage with 1:47 on the clock. Jackson then followed with an impressive reverse layup off a pass from Richardson, putting Duke up four with 1:11 remaining — before Hsu cut the lead in half with a floater of her own. However, Jackson iced the game with a two-point jumper from just inside the arc with 17 seconds remaining. Tight defense forced a five-second violation, sealing the 66-62 Blue Devil victory.
“I’ve got a young team,” noted Lawson. “Seven freshmen and sophomores out of 10, for whom it was their first road game. We looked like it, so it’s going to be a process for us.”
At the start of the second half with the score knotted at 30, Duke only converted one of its first five looks from the floor, while Hsu knocked down two shots with ease. The Blue Devils, however, were rewarded for their efforts pounding the paint with the dual threat of Emsbo and Brown, entering the bonus early in the quarter. Brown and freshman forward Delaney Thomas used this to their advantage, knocking down all six of their combined free throws to help tie the game back up at 40.
“I thought the double big lineup in the third allowed us to stretch a bit,” said Lawson of the duo down low. “That was huge. Those two are obviously the most experienced players and they’re both talented.”
Duke exploited the open space after the third quarter media timeout thanks to elite play from freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa. Sophomore guard Taina Mair continued to will the offense on, converting a jumper early in the fourth to maintain the Duke advantage. Another from just inside the arc put the Blue Devils up by ten with a little more than five minutes left to play. Mair finished the contest with 18 points on 8-11, leading all Duke scorers.
The contest was back-and-forth from the beginning, with both teams pushing the tempo. After a few possessions without a score, the Blue Devils found Brown in the paint, who used her height advantage to score the first points of the game. Duke employed the press and Brown’s 6-foot-6 frame to its advantage, forcing six turnovers in the early going and running pick-and-roll basketball.
On the other side, Columbia worked its offense through Hsu — her 10 points in the first quarter kept the Lions within four through the period.
The second quarter continued with the Blue Devils finding offensive success in the paint, as Emsbo and freshman wing Jadyn Donovan converted layups to maintain the slim Duke advantage.The Lions continued to turn to Hsu, who created jaw-dropping plays. One spinning fadeaway look dropped in from the right-hand corner to the delight of the home crowd. Another 3-point look coming off a screen ignited the crowd into frenzy, giving Columbia needed momentum. With the game knotted at 24, Lawson was forced to call a timeout.
As Lion defenders crashed the paint to take away easy layups, the Blue Devils found themselves unable to cash in, enabling Columbia to stay close. At one point, Duke missed six consecutive shots in a row, allowing the Lions to go on an 8-1 run. Usually steady producers Jackson and Richardson shot a combined 6-for-26 on the game, while the whole team shot a measly 1-for-10 from behind the arc.
Fleeing New York victory in hand, Duke returns home Thursday night for a matchup with tough in-state foe Davidson.
“We’re gonna have to play much better than we did tonight just to be in the game against Davidson Thursday,” added Lawson.
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