Typically, section 17 of Cameron Indoor Stadium is uniformly dressed. For example, in Duke men’s basketball’s loss against Arizona Friday, the Cameron Crazies participated in a white out.
Similarly, the first thing that stood out in Duke women’s basketball’s exhibition against the United States National Team was a packed environment of people, but they didn’t all dress the same.
The fans sported an array of jerseys, from the teal of the New York Liberty to the bright orange of both the Phoenix Mercury and standard WNBA merchandise, In addition, there was no shortage of Duke faithful, as the official attendance was 3,357, higher than any game at Cameron Indoor last year except the regular-season finale against North Carolina.
Team USA defeated the Blue Devils 87-58, and the majority of the second half was not particularly close. But that didn’t matter. The enormous community support represents not only the increase in enthusiasm about women’s basketball more broadly, but demonstrates the important program-building that head coach Kara Lawson is doing in Durham.
“I feel very fortunate to have been able to provide this opportunity for our team and thankful to USA Basketball for bringing that team here,” Lawson said. “I thought it was a great outpouring of support from the community and a lot of fans coming. It was a great day.”
Lawson is a special ambassador for the game, with many connections to USA Basketball and a history with numerous players in the contest Sunday.
“Basketball is a small world," Lawson said. "I mean, you cross paths if you're in this thing with pretty much everybody."
Lawson mentioned that she coached Sabrina Ionescu in college, along with coaching Jackie Young and Allisha Gray in the 3-on-3 team that won the Tokyo Olympic gold medal in 2021. Most recently, she was an assistant on Cheryl Reeve’s staff for the national team at the FIBA Women’s World Cup last fall, leading to another gold medal.
“What just oozes off of [Lawson] is just the love for the game,” Reeve said. “She's a basketball junkie … and she was impactful for our staff for sure.”
After the game, each member of the American team adoringly hugged Lawson, demonstrating how well-respected she is. Earlier in the offseason, Lawson brought Boston Celtics guard Jayson Tatum to speak to the team, which drew countless star-struck expressions from the Blue Devils.
These opportunities to witness and play against some of the best players in the country are unique, and her team has responded in a positive way.
“They were smiling from the moment they woke up and when they were coming in and getting shots this morning,” Lawson said.
The team also put an impressive product on the floor, and while the Blue Devils struggled at times to score offensively, their defense never wavered. With only 10 available players on the roster, this requires an elite level of conditioning.
“[I was impressed with] how hard they play out there,” Gray said. “I was very impressed with the cardio. I mean, they pressed basically for 40 minutes.”
“They impose their will defensively … and they are absolutely relentless on the offensive glass. Those two things give you a chance to win every basketball game,” Reeve said. “The energy and effort that they put forward each time I've seen them play this season, including in person today, as I told each of them, I'm impressed, and I think they have a chance to do something special.”
This rebounding prowess for Duke was on display against a much bigger Team USA. Two of the smallest guards on the team, freshman Oluchi Okananwa and sophomore Taina Mair, had seven and five rebounds, respectively. Even when the Americans went on inevitable scoring spurts, the Blue Devils never gave up, continuing to run their offensive sets and fight on the glass.
The exhibition was also a testament to the growing popularity of the women’s game, and the North Carolina basketball community came in droves to witness a special moment.
“All it takes is one player to connect with one young kid, that changes their perspective,” Reeve said. “These young kids when they go back home, hopefully they're emulating, whether it’s the USA Basketball players or whether it’s Duke players, but it’s how you grow the game.”
Evidently, this was bigger than a scrimmage. It shows that Duke has the perfect person to build a respected women’s basketball program, and everyone who has played or coached with Lawson raves about her in the same way.
“[Lawson], the person that she is, I think that's the epitome of USA Basketball,” Reeve said.
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Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.