It was a rough week for Duke. A heartbreaking loss to South Carolina and a double-digit defeat at the hands of a weaker Clemson team signaled bad things coming into Sunday’s matchup against a strong Florida Gulf Coast group that has consistently outperformed expectations for a mid-major school.
In the first half, there looked to be a non-zero chance that it would be an 0-3 week for head coach Kara Lawson’s group. In the end, however, Duke demonstrated its adaptability. Despite going down by multiple baskets at points in the second quarter and battling significant foul trouble, the Blue Devils bounced back in the second half to come out with a strong 82-63 win against the Eagles.
The first half of this game was one largely ruled by the referees. 27 personal fouls were whistled between the two teams: 13 on the hosts and 14 on the visitors. As a result, a number of players had easily racked up two or three fouls coming into the second quarter. Freshman Jadyn Donovan ran into problems early, as she continued to demonstrate both the costs and benefits of her eagerness to make plays. While Donovan was able to land a few key blocks and force turnovers, she also gave up avoidable shooting fouls and found herself occasionally caught out of position. It was a point of emphasis at halftime for the whole team, too.
“That was something we really wanted to limit during halftime so we talked about it in the locker room. We were really touchy, so obviously [the Eagles] got those calls,” said sophomore guard Taina Mair. “But just keeping our hands up and showing our hands to the refs to show we're not fouling is something that we certainly did improve on in the second half.”
More notably, however, both true centers on the Duke roster picked up early fouls. Senior Kennedy Brown had two called in the first quarter that saw her getting pulled for the second period. Graduate student backup Camilla Emsbo also had issues, as she found herself with three by halftime. As a result, Lawson was forced to switch to a smaller lineup. Freshman forward Delaney Thomas saw time at the 5-spot, as did her classmate Jordan Wood.
“What happened in the first half was [the post players] all got fouls. so that's why I started to not play them in the second quarter,” Lawson said after the game. “… so I was actually forced with the fouls to go to the smaller lineup.”
Fortunately for the home team, the lineup change worked. Against an undersized Florida Gulf Coast team that had just two players listed at over six feet tall, the Blue Devils could run with a smaller, faster lineup without the concern of giving up the post. Having more versatile playmakers on the floor allowed Duke to space out defenders and create more quality shots on the outside. Despite being down for stretches in the second quarter, the Blue Devils clawed back into a narrow lead at the end of the first half.
It was in the latter 20 minutes of the game when the scoring really opened up. The offensive execution improved massively, and shots started falling at a higher rate. Mair led the way, as she dropped a 24-piece on 11-of-18 shooting from the field.
“I thought we played our best stretch in that first half with the four guards in, so at halftime decided to start that group, because that's what was working in that moment,” Lawson said on the lineup change. “You might have a lot of plans as a coach going into a game but your job is to go with what's working in that moment.”
Ultimately, this game demonstrated just how flexible this group is. When things aren’t working well, Lawson has the personnel to change around her rotation and call different plays. Three of the four members of this year’s freshman class can feasibly guard positions 1-4, and probably a slightly undersized center, too.
Going forward into a brutal conference schedule, that versatility will be incredibly important. Other ACC schools have talented athletes at every position, and off-nights can happen. What will make the difference for this team as it heads into the meat grinder of conference play is who steps up. Freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa has impressed early, as have Thomas and Donovan. If Lawson can take advantage of the flexibility she has on her short bench, then this team’s ceiling is higher than might be indicated by the early losses to teams like Clemson. Challenging nonconference games like this one will set the tone for the ones that matter more later in the year.
“We know that we will have to play our best game of the year to have a chance to have a chance to win. But we know that for our young team that these games in these matchups are pivotal for our growth,” Lawson said of the nonconference slate. “To show them you can't come into a game and not be disciplined and not have great effort in our league and you lose. So I want to play as many of those games as possible.”
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