'A lot of good lessons': Duke women's basketball impresses despite defeat to USA Basketball in home exhibition

Taina Mair crosses up a Team USA defender during Saturday's exhibition.
Taina Mair crosses up a Team USA defender during Saturday's exhibition.

When the USA Basketball Women’s National Team came to Durham to scrimmage Duke, it probably was not a fair fight. The Blue Devils are an above-average college hoops squad, but the national team is arguably the best in the world. 

As such, it seemed unfair to expect Duke to come out with anything close to a win. Despite that, the atmosphere was friendly and the crowd energetic as the Blue Devils held their own, playing quality basketball in a 87-58 loss against the Americans Sunday afternoon at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

“Failure or times where you have to show your resilience. That's when you get better as a player and as a team,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “And so that's what this provided for us. It was hard to play against them. And we did it. And I think the growth that we can get from it is why you play the game.”

The Blue Devils were unable to play the same level of gritty and physical inside basketball that they often do against other college opponents, because they simply did not have the size and strength to do it against a much stronger USA team. The hosts played on razor-thin margins, creating tiny windows of opportunity for quick cuts and jump shots. The Americans, on the other hand, were much more methodical. They had the size and space to assert their will, swinging the ball and generating whichever shots they wanted to. Ultimately, the home squad still played its game. It was just that much more challenging against a loaded USA group.

“The way we played, we did not ask them to do anything that's not in our scheme,” Lawson said,  “It's just ‘hey, on this player, we're doing X, on this player we're doing Y’ …  We didn't change anything from our base. It's all in our playbook. But we’ve never played a team that had this much firepower.”

The first quarter was a back-and-forth one, as both teams managed to create quality looks. USA guard Diana Taurasi opened the scoring with a catch-and-shoot jumper from behind the arc, but the Blue Devils' Reigan Richardson came right back with a corner three of her own. From there, it was off to the races. Duke did its best to keep up, but still ended the first period down 24-14. 

Despite the early deficit, the Blue Devils were not discouraged. They came out of the break with plenty of energy, as freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa opened with another three to cut the margin back into the single digits. The defense continued to be strong against a potent USA attack. The visitors were noticeably quicker in transition and scored 15 fast-break points, but the Blue Devils managed to hold their own down low. The biggest weakness was around the perimeter. Against a USA squad loaded with potent shooters, it was a challenge to guard all at the same time.

“We could never rotate to get in there,” Lawson said. “Every time they were passing it was to another really great shooter and that's what makes them the best team.”

Halfway through the second period, Richardson showed off her own skill set. She took women’s hoops legend Taurasi one-on-one, using a quick step-back to create plenty of space before dropping in a quick jumper. While the game still was not especially close, it did not feel like a traditional blowout. There was no sign of defeat from the Blue Devils, as they continued pushing despite a widening deficit. 

Duke ended the first half on a good note, as some impressive ball distribution gave cutting center Camilla Emsbo an and-one layup to finish out the period. While the scoreboard read 46-27 in favor of the Americans when the buzzer sounded, the Blue Devils seemed undeterred. 

Team USA opened the scoring under a minute into the second half, as Taurasi swung the ball behind her back to guard Kahleah Copper for a corner 3-pointer. Copper was the most dominant player in the game for either team, as she dropped 21 points on 77.8% shooting. 

Duke continued to hold its own, but as the game went on fell further back. The Blue Devils were exhausted from running the floor with an athletic USA group. Rotations started slipping and shot percentages dipped. The drive was still there, but the gas was draining from the tank. The fourth quarter was more of the same, as the home squad continued to play hard but struggled to keep up. 

At the end of the day, Duke played about as well as could be expected from it. The game plan was one obviously tooled specifically to put up a fight against a much better team. Sophomore guard Taina Mair continued what has been an excellent season thus far, opening the fourth quarter with a contested 3-pointer and totalling 16 points overall. The offensive execution was strong, as was the ball distribution. Every player on Duke’s roster managed to score at least once. The freshmen also played well, as Okananwa continued to showcase her ability to score from anywhere on the floor and highly ranked recruit Jadyn Donovan got out in transition and recorded some key defensive plays. 

Now, the home team will look to take valuable lessons from such a star-studded matchup heading into the meat of the regular season. 

“I think a lot of good lessons for us in terms of what we need to work on,” Lawson said. “[I’m] not mad or angry about a loss like this because that the level of that team is obviously really, really high. [I] just feel very fortunate to have been able to provide this opportunity for our team and thankful to USA Basketball for bringing that team here.”

Now with the grueling exhibition over, the Blue Devils will return to regularly scheduled programming on the road Tuesday against Columbia. 


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