From the outside looking in, a 93-45 victory seems pretty good.
Five of the nine Blue Devils suited up for Sunday’s game against N.C. Central scored in double figures, led by junior guard Reigan Richardson with 22 points. Right from the start, it was all Duke, as Richardson sank two free throws after getting fouled on her first drive to the basket. Five points by freshman Jadyn Donovan and seven by sophomore Emma Koabel stretched the Blue Devil lead to 18-0, before the Eagles scored their first points. Duke played with a level of quickness the visitors couldn’t match, despite them coming into the game averaging more possessions per game than the home squad.
But while a win is a win, Duke head coach Kara Lawson is looking for something more.
“We’re not there yet with our organization and with our attention to detail,” Lawson said after the game.
It may not look like it from the score, but Duke had 22 turnovers (N.C. Central had 23) and had the ball stolen 14 times. The Blue Devils’ hot start to the game inspired the Eagles to go on a run of their own in the second half, and they opened the third period on a 8-1 run before Lawson called a timeout.
“I didn't think that group started with the right amount of energy,” Lawson said.
Duke responded fairly well to the reality check, but the third quarter was still low scoring and remained close, 18-17 in favor of the Blue Devils.
“We fell off a little and coach had to get us in check,” guard Delaney Thomas said. “We can't have those drop-offs.”
In general, though, this was a strong, stat-filling performance by the Blue Devils. If the team was upset after a close loss a week earlier at Stanford, it certainly didn’t show it. Pace of play was a key element of the win, and Duke outscored the Eagles 22-5 on fast break points. N.C. Central was slowed several times by outstanding defensive pressure, which often started right from the inbound by guard Taina Mair. While the Boston College transfer recorded no steals of her own, her pressing forced errors that the home team capitalized on, scoring 26 of its points off turnovers. Mair, often running point, was also instrumental in leading the Blue Devil offense that at times looked unstoppable.
“I did think we had a few possessions today where we were just playing, and it was good,” Lawson said of the team’s ball movement. “With a very young team, we’re trying to get them where they can do that pretty good.”
Strong possessions, like Sunday's, are crucial in building chemistry and cohesion for playing against stronger teams — which are coming soon.
ACC play will commence for the Blue Devils when they take on Clemson before winter break, but two big SEC tests will come first. An away game against Georgia will be followed up by the team’s biggest opponent of the year when No. 1 South Carolina comes to town Sunday.
“We’re in it now,” Lawson said. “That's what we're trying to get our group to understand, because most of them have not been through it before.”
While the team is young and relatively inexperienced, it was the freshman Thomas who had a strong double-double off the bench for her best performance so far in a Blue Devil uniform Sunday.
“I think it relies on the players to bring that energy to bring that enthusiasm to bring that effort and work ethic,” Thomas said.
Her effort and work ethic was evident. The Charles Town, W.Va., native had a big second quarter with six defensive rebounds and a nice jumper, but the highlight came in the third when she chased down N.C. Central’s Jada Tiggett on a fast break and swatted the lay away for her first block of the day. She ended with three of Duke’s 11 blocks, leading all players. Additionally, her 13 rebounds marked “a really good performance on the glass,” according to Lawson, which was also the best of the day.
Addressing the consistent hustle by all and keeping stout for each quarter, as it did Sunday against the Eagles, will be a focal point for Lawson and the team moving forward.
“Being able to play better longer is what it's going to take to win any of these games in the next couple of weeks,” she said.
A key part of that will be staying healthy. Duke got the win Sunday with nine players, with sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson sitting after a big performance against Stanford. The China, Texas native has been in a boot at times following the team’s loss to Davidson, but Lawson said that her exclusion was “precautionary.” But at several moments during Sunday’s game, it looked like injuries might hurt the Blue Devils even more. Richardson and Donovan went down hard after Richardson got fouled on a drive to the basket, and were quickly subbed out. Then, with under three minutes remaining in the game, Koabel cashed in an open three from the corner, but was fouled on the closeout, leading to an awkward landing on her right ankle. The Canada native walked off the court under her own power, but did not return to the court. It is expected she will be back for Thursday’s game, but further injuries would be another thorn in the side of an already smaller team. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, they were not Sunday — and Duke stayed defensively resolute nonetheless.
The season continues with a 5 p.m. tip Thursday in Athens, Ga., against the Bulldogs as a part of the ACC/SEC challenge, a game which is sure to test their resolve once more.
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