It was a tale of the best of Duke and the worst of Duke in its 60-56 win against Virginia Sunday afternoon.
Inside John Paul Jones Arena, the longtime ACC rivals lined up for tip-off, both coming off of losses against other ACC opponents. The desperation for a win was palpable from the jump, as both teams burst out of the gates physically and aggressively, racking up numerous fouls in the process and ultimately culminating in an ugly game on both ends — one that especially showed the highs and lows of Blue Devil basketball in 2023-24.
Turnovers are the worst of Duke this season, and even though 14 turnovers is a far cry from the 27 they had against Louisville, Virginia still converted those 14 giveaways into 14 points, including a stretch of time where the Blue Devils had five turnovers in as many minutes.
To add to the pain, Duke once again had another up-and-down shooting day, missing 11 free throws and going a measly 2-for-18 from three.
“I thought we missed a lot of easy shots,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “... The fact that we were able to win a game in spite of that performance is encouraging.”
The Blue Devils’ frustration with their lack of offensive production was visible as they desperately attempted to get shots to fall, leading to a host of traveling violations and some of the aforementioned giveaways.
Having the offensive fire unlit could have been a problem for Lawson’s squad, but the best of Duke pulled through for the win.
That was and will continue to be its defense, which has been Duke’s saving grace multiple times this season. The unit has managed to hold 14 of its 15 opponents below their respective scoring averages. No matter what happens on the offensive side of the ball, the Blue Devils tend to stay consistent on defense, and their showing against Virginia proved that. Even as they struggled to make shots fall on the other side of the court, Duke determinedly ran back on defense and held the Cavaliers to a 29.6% shooting clip from the field.
And even though Duke continued to play its signature lights-out defense, the Cavaliers managed to keep themselves in the game. They were aided by the constant foul trouble the Blue Devils found themselves in; 22 of Virginia’s 56 points came from the free-throw line, a key factor that helped keep the game far closer than it should have been on paper.
Another encouraging part of Duke’s performance was its scoring in the paint. The Blue Devils put up 30 points in the paint compared to the Cavaliers’ 20. Crashing the board for points is where many of Duke’s players perform the best, including senior center Kennedy Brown, who had another stellar performance with 13 to her name.
The matchup of ACC foes was an important road test for the young Duke team. Going up against a far more experienced Virginia unit while still trying to fix its turnover problem and not having consistent offensive production, the Blue Devils could have faltered and walked out of John Paul Jones Arena with a loss. As the Cavaliers, led by Notre Dame transfer Sam Brunelle and fifth-year Camryn Taylor, refused to go down quietly, Duke pulled together instead of falling apart.
“We didn’t allow them to overtake the lead,” Lawson said. “This is all a new experience for most of my players and it was good that they were able to get the win.”
Indeed, though Virginia came close, Duke never allowed it to tie or lead, holding steadfastly to the advantage it grasped in the first quarter. The Cavaliers, time and time again, came within striking distance of the Blue Devils but could never get quite close enough to seal the deal, a testament to Duke’s determination.
“It’s desperate, it’s physical, it’s tough, it’s competitive,” Lawson said of ACC basketball.
It won’t get any easier for the Blue Devils as they gear up to face ranked ACC opponents like N.C. State and Virginia Tech, but Sunday afternoon Duke showed that it can keep its cool under pressure. If the Blue Devils continue to work on minimizing turnovers and improving their shooting while continuing to rely on their tried and true defense, then the best of times may be yet to come.
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