In Duke’s first loss of the season, a 69-62 defeat at the hands of Davidson Thursday evening, its weaknesses were on full display, providing the blueprint for how to attack the Blue Devils the rest of the season.
It is no secret that Duke is operating with minimal depth, especially after the season-ending injury to veteran guard Vanessa De Jesus. However, the problems this system creates become even more exacerbated when in foul trouble, which head coach Kara Lawson found out the hard way Thursday night.
Duke has relied on guard Reigan Richardson to be its main scorer all season, but the junior was unable to provide that against the Wildcats, as she committed two fouls in the first five minutes. This prompted Lawson to sit her for the remainder of the first half, a choice that left the Blue Devils without a pure scorer on the court for the majority of the first two quarters.
“That's a mistake on my part, I should have taken her out after that first foul,” head coach Kara Lawson said. “I wanted to try to give her a little bit of a leash, as a junior, you got to trust players sometimes, can they play with a foul, can they play with two fouls, can they play with three fouls, and I made a mistake, and that hurt the team.”
Duke was down 8-6 when Richardson left the contest, and the Blue Devils were never able to pull any closer than that for the remainder of the game, with several comeback attempts being stopped dead in their tracks by Davidson’s talented offense. Richardson did return and play the entire second half, but she seemed out of rhythm after sitting for so long, finishing the game 2-of-9 from the field, her worst mark of the young season.
With their best scorer sidelined, the Blue Devils were pressing to find buckets early on, especially when the Wildcats applied full-court pressure to Duke’s inexperienced backcourt. For a team that last year prided itself on getting out in transition, the Blue Devils were unable to run in the first half, tallying zero fast-break points. When forced to operate in the half court, Lawson’s team was ineffective. The shooting was poor at all levels, as Duke finished 55% on layups and 2-for-13 from beyond the arc, not nearly enough to keep up with the Wildcat’s potent offense.
“The point of offense is to generate the quality looks, and then we've got to finish,” Lawson said. “And so hopefully, we'll be able to finish a little bit better. I think when we play with great pace, we're a team that can score well.”
During the first two quarters, Duke’s usually stout defense faltered, as Davidson knocked down six triples in the first half, with three different Wildcats putting up nine or more points. Davidson’s trio of Charlise Dunn, Elle Sutphin and Suzi-Rose Deegan were unconscious all night, with the group combining for eight made threes and 52 points total. In the second half, Duke did a better job of forcing shots at the end of the shot clock, but they simply kept falling for the Wildcats, with many misses also turning into eventual second-chance points from offensive rebounds.
After halftime, Lawson made it a point to try and pick up the tempo, which can be hard with little depth and a young group that has not had ample time to jell as a unit. However, the strategy seemed to be more effective than the stagnant offense utilized in the first half, as Duke was able to largely trade blows with Davidson. However, this style of run-and-gun offense coupled with the general youth of the roster can lend itself to turnovers, and the Blue Devils coughed it up 19 times, allowing their opponent to gain 21 points off of these mistakes.
Despite the loss, Lawson can take away one real positive: she has two legit contributors in freshmen Oluchi Okananwa and Jadyn Donovan. With her starting guards struggling, Lawson turned to the two youngsters, and the pair was dynamite off the bench, especially in the second half. The two highly touted recruits lived up to their hype by the eye test, as they seemed to be playing a gear faster than every other player on the floor for the Blue Devils, especially Okananwa.
“Honestly, it's a blessing to be able to start learning this young and this early what the team needs from us, what coach needs from us. I know [Donovan] can attest to this,” Okananwa said. “We're just, we're out there. We're so riled up. We're so riled up because we know what we can bring and how, through all of this, through all of this learning we're going to keep on getting better.”
The Boston native played like she was shot out of a cannon for all of her second-half minutes, consistently grabbing rebounds and taking them coast-to-coast for buckets, while also grabbing offensive boards for putback chances. In fact, the 5-foot-10 guard leads the team in rebounding, a stat that both speaks to her ability to crash the boards and the team’s general weakness at rebounding.
“When you play with that type of effort, it gets rewarded with opportunities,” Lawson said. “She got offensive rebounds. She leads our team in rebounding, and she's only [5-foot-10]. It's pretty remarkable.”
Donovan was touted for her elite athleticism and ability to defend coming into Durham, and she has proved why that praise was thrown onto her, grabbing five rebounds while also tallying a block and two steals, in addition to forcing several jump balls. Going forward, it would not be surprising to see Lawson inject the pair into the starting lineup, or at least give them increasing minutes as they continue to mature.
Duke will have a chance to right the ship Sunday in Palo Alto, Calif., as it has a matchup with No. 6 Stanford.
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