Following a two-game losing streak, the Blue Devils were eager to get back in the win column with a dominant showing against N.C. Central, and dominant they were. They played with a sense of urgency and purpose, en route to a 93-45 win at Cameron Indoor Stadium Sunday afternoon.
Sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson, who had a stellar performance against Stanford last time out, was out for this game, with fellow sophomore Emma Koabel starting in her place. Koabel made the most of her first career start with 13 points and a game-high three 3-pointers. As well as a very strong defensive performance that showcased her value as a 3-and-D threat for the Blue Devils. She did, however, get hurt in the fourth quarter when fouled on a converted 3-point attempt. Koabel was able to get back up and hobble to the bench, but remained out for the rest of the game.
“Emma is like a freshman in this sense, she didn't play a lot last year,” said head coach Kara Lawson postgame. “So this is her first time going through games in situations where possessions matter … She’s someone that’s a capable scorer for us [and] an improved defender for us.”
Junior Reigan Richardson also stepped up in a very familiar role as Duke’s number one scoring option, finishing with 22 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the field. She started the game quietly, but quickly turned it up offensively when the team needed her to. She played with poise and aggressiveness, consistently drawing fouls on the Eagles and going 8-for-10 from the line.
Additionally, Delaney Thomas and Oluchi Okananwa did what they do best, attacking the glass as Duke’s premier rebounders. They combined for 22 rebounds, with Thomas recording a double-double.
“She just has a special gift in terms of a knack for the ball. And her athleticism too, she's quick and she darts in there and then she jumps and she's got long arms,” Lawson said about Okananwa’s rebounding.
The first quarter saw Duke (4-2) get off to one of its strongest starts of the season, and it did so very methodically. It was not through deep shooting or flashy dribbles, but rather through ball movement and simple layups. It excelled in the fast break and was aggressive attacking the paint in the halfcourt. The Blue Devils did not shoot their first 3-pointer until the 5:53 mark in the first quarter. It was Koabel that brought the shooting spark in what was a dominant quarter for her offensively. She had seven points in just the first five minutes, and finished the period with 10.
The end of the first and the beginning of the second quarter, however, were a continuous portion of subpar production from the Blue Devils. They got up by as much as 30-4 with three minutes remaining, but their guards slowed down at that point as N.C. Central (3-3) took advantage, finishing the quarter on a 6-2 run. This leaked into the next period, as Duke’s energy visibility dropped. It was more careless with the ball, lacked as much intensity on the defensive end and the same shots that were easily falling through earlier were now clunking off the rim.
The Eagles cut it to as close as 36-15 midway through the second by taking advantage of transition opportunities and holding the Blue Devils to poor shooting. However, head coach Kara Lawson got in their ears, and they flipped a switch going back to the intensity that got them off to their incredible start as they finished the quarter on a 16-1 run. Richardson and Emsbo, especially, took it over offensively, combining for 16 of Duke’s 20 points in the quarter. Even those who cooled down a bit from their hot start, like Koabel, made an impact defensively.
N.C. Central came out of the half firing with a 12-5 run. Its invigorated offense was not just about Duke breaking down defensively, but it was also the Eagles simply playing their best ball of the afternoon. Their ball control and ball movement had improved significantly. Their turnover count dropped from seven and eight in the first and second quarter, respectively, to just four in the third. This allowed them more shot opportunities and the Blue Devils less easy points off turnovers.
“[I] wasn't happy obviously with our defense, our attention to detail,” Lawson said postgame. “We're a young team and we're a team that's trying to string together quality possessions. Enough of them in a row to be able to be good.”
Duke responded, however, pushing the deficit back up to as much as 38 points behind Richardson and a steadfast team-wide focus. It maintained the high-level defense that has come to be expected from them, such as a sequence where a Koabel block led to an easy layup which was immediately followed by an Okananwa inbound steal and assist.
The fourth quarter was impressive because the Blue Devils never reverted back to the brief period of cruise control that they showed early in the second. Duke kept its foot on the gas pedal, with the final score being its largest lead of the game.
Now the Blue Devils can carry this promising victory over to Athens, Ga., where they face Georgia Thursday in the ACC/SEC Challenge.
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