Duke women's basketball honors Pat Summitt's legacy, shows true colors in colossal win against No. 23 Florida State

Oluchi Okananwa stretches for a layup during Duke's rout of Florida State.
Oluchi Okananwa stretches for a layup during Duke's rout of Florida State.

A casual viewer may have been confused when they walked into Cameron Indoor Stadium Thursday night. Duke donned its gray uniforms for the first time this season, and the entire staff wore purple “The Sisterhood” pullovers as part of the team’s “We Back Pat” night, honoring legendary coach Pat Summitt while raising awareness for Alzheimer’s disease. But despite the unusual visuals, the team showed its true colors on the court. 

Coming off a demoralizing loss Sunday at the hands of then-No. 4 N.C. State, the Blue Devils needed a strong performance to help right the ship. But in their way stood no cupcake, as No. 23 Florida State brought its high-octane offense to Durham after suffering two straight losses of its own. Something had to give, and it all broke the way of the home team, as Duke used arguably its best wire-to-wire performance en route to a 88-46 stifling of the Seminoles to improve to 13-6 on the year. 

“It was one of our most complete performances of the season, maybe our most complete. I said that a little bit ago when we played Georgia Tech, but I think this was just a more well rounded performance overall,” head coach Kara Lawson said. 

Summit has a long-lasting legacy as an icon of the women’s game, captaining Tennessee to 38 straight winning seasons and eight national championships while also stepping away from the game as the all-time winningest coach in the sport, a record that stood until just a few days ago. One of the many standouts Summitt coached over her illustrious career happens to be the current woman manning the sidelines in Cameron Indoor, as Lawson had a spectacular career in Knoxville, Tenn., before playing a 13-year WNBA career. 

Just like her mentor, Lawson has a reputation for running a tight ship of a program, holding her players to an extremely high standard, especially on the defensive end. On Thursday, this mantra proved extremely beneficial, as Florida State was held to 46 points on the night despite averaging nearly double that per game up to this moment in the season. 

“Our foundational principles in this program are built on what coach Summitt taught me … and so how we play, how we run things, what our standards are, all comes from Coach, so it's nice to honor her memory,” Lawson said. “And I don't think, I know, she would have been very pleased with this defensive performance in the rebounding performance tonight.” 

The defensive masterclass started from the opening tip, and was spearheaded by senior center Kennedy Brown, who continues to prove why she is one of the premier interior defenders in the ACC. The Derby, Kan., native anchored the Blue Devils’ defensive unit to perfection in the first quarter, racking up a school-record four blocks in the first quarter, forcing the Seminoles to settle for early threes rather than attacking the paint. This resulted in a slim lead heading into the second period, but not before some more home-court magic. 

With 2.7 seconds remaining in the first 10 minutes, sophomore Ashlon Jackson caught the inbound running, taking a few steps before launching a Hail Mary from roughly three-quarters-court length. After going 0-for-8 in Sunday’s contest at Reynolds Coliseum, the sophomore got a much-needed confidence boost, as her heave banked in at the buzzer, giving Duke a shot of adrenaline it carried through the rest of the contest. 

Despite these defensive efforts, the visitors started making some noise midway through the second quarter. Back-to-back open threes allowed Florida State to cut the Duke lead to six, forcing Lawson to call a timeout to try and get her squad back on track. They responded excellently, as the Blue Devils propelled forward on an 11-point run to largely put the game out of reach, holding their opponents to their lowest scoring output in a half this season, as the Seminoles could only muster 22 points during the first two quarters. 

“We emphasized defense throughout the preparation for this game because we know they're a high scoring team, they're gonna keep coming at us all game no matter what the score is,” sophomore guard Taina Mair said. “So we just made sure that we were always in our spots, and we just continued to communicate with each other.”

Even as shots were hard to come by for Duke at times during the game, the level of intensity and effort never wavered. There is no better case study for this than freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa, who went 0-of-6 shooting in the first half. While this could easily derail some young players, Okananwa, and by and large Lawson’s program, was extremely resilient. Despite not having any tallies in the points category, the Boston native made her impact felt in a big way through 20 minutes of play, racking up nine rebounds before getting on track scoring-wise in the second half, finishing with eight points and 13 boards. 

With a commanding 18-point lead entering the locker room, it would have been easy to get complacent and let a talented team back into the game. However, the Blue Devils did the exact opposite, keeping the foot on the gas until the final horn. The home team continued to dominate its opponent in nearly every category, especially on the glass, where Duke corralled 23 more rebounds than Florida State. Led by Mair, who had a team-high 18 points, the lead was able to extend to 64-40 heading into the last ten minutes.

It was in this final stanza where Lawson truly showed signs of Summitt’s tutelage, remaining engaged and animated on the sideline despite having a monster lead and leaving the starters on the court to continue decimating their opponent. The team responded to this energy, putting together its best quarter of the night and likely the season. The Seminoles did not register a point in the quarter until 2:38 remained in the game, as they were only able to muster six points in the game’s final frame. In the end, Duke finished with one of its most impressive performances in recent history, a reminder to never count Lawson-coached teams out.

“I'm just so proud of my young team that they just stayed focused and confident in what we're doing, which they've done all year, they've never wavered and that makes me feel really good,” Lawson said. “Because that's a show of resilience and that's such an essential quality in a team, in a player, in life is that you have the ability to bounce back, and so that's probably what I'm most proud of in this one. Even though there's obviously a lot to be excited about.”

The Blue Devils will travel next down to Florida to take on former point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson and Miami, and they will need to keep the same intensity if they want to take down the Hurricanes on the road. While Duke will return to wearing its typical garb, Thursday night may be a sign that the true vision can be seen no matter the colors of the jersey.  


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