'You can see it': Duke women's basketball's defense-first, youth-forward game plan secures rout of Virginia Tech

From left: Camilla Emsbo, Ashlon Jackson, Taina Mair and Reigan Richardson celebrate during Duke's suffocating win against Virginia Tech.
From left: Camilla Emsbo, Ashlon Jackson, Taina Mair and Reigan Richardson celebrate during Duke's suffocating win against Virginia Tech.

It was 8-0 with six minutes left in the first quarter. Duke played an incredible defensive possession, forcing Virginia Tech guard Cayla King into a remarkably difficult one-legged jumpshot. But as elite shooters do, she hit a miraculous triple, increasing the Hokie lead to 11-0. 

The Blue Devil offense struggled to get any good looks, and Virginia Tech was firing from both inside and out. With the Hokies’ offensive scheme of elite shooters surrounding an All-American center in Elizabeth Kitley, they are immensely tough to guard. It looked to be a long evening for Duke inside Cameron Indoor Stadium Thursday night. 

It would be easy to let up defensively and get frustrated after an abysmal offensive start, but like this team has always done under head coach Kara Lawson, the offensive struggles did not affect the defensive effort. The Blue Devils roared back with a motivated performance and knocked off Virginia Tech 63-46 in a thrilling environment. 

“You can't get discouraged when they're making those tough shots. You have to just stay with it, and you have to be able to just keep making things difficult,” Lawson said. “I just felt like if we could grab a hold of the game a little bit, we could get some stops and then the stops allow you to run.”

Duke did the seemingly impossible by holding Virginia Tech to by far its lowest point total all season. The Blue Devil defense was moving on a string for much of the game, having the tough assignment of keeping Kitley honest inside while communicating on myriad screens with capable shooters. Duke had elite on-ball pressure, forcing 20 Hokie turnovers and making life miserable for their guards. 

“They have the perfect blend of an All-American player on the interior at center and then surrounded by shooters, which forces you to make a lot of tough decisions,” Lawson said. “ I thought that once we settled, we did a good job of our communication and of our switches.”

Junior guard Reigan Richardson, one of the lone veterans on the home team, stepped up when it needed her most, converting the Blue Devils’ first five points and igniting them into the locker room after an impressive sequence on both ends of the floor to end the opening half. 

“I really have been struggling over the past couple games just to stay consistent,” Richardson said. “And I feel like today I just felt really good.”

“One of the things that makes [Richardson] special is her high level two-way ability,” Lawson said. “You can put her on a top player offensively on one end, and she can be your leading scorer on the other. That's rare.”

This team has shown flashes of brilliance. It took a top-10 Stanford team to overtime in its building and were tied in the fourth quarter with South Carolina — arguably the best team in the country. But Duke had not yet knocked off a top tier opponent this season, in part because of its young and largely inexperienced roster. 

Yes, Lawson’s recent teams and stingy brand of basketball can be frustrating to the Blue Devil faithful, with elite defenses marred by inconsistent offensive outputs. 

But it’s even more frustrating to opponents, who are predictably unprepared for the sheer grit, physicality and pace that Duke plays with. It takes remarkable conditioning for a team to consistently employ a full-court press and run the ball up and down the floor like a track meet. 

“We want to push it, we feel like the strength of our team lends itself to that in terms of the athleticism that we have at multiple spots,” Lawson said. 

Kitley was feasting inside, but the guards were visibly tired and elite shooter Georgia Amoore was only 2-for-8 from the field, in large part due to heavy ball pressure. When Amoore left the game in the second half with an injury, the other guards were clearly discombobulated by the defense as the Blue Devils smelled blood in the water and capitalized with more forced turnovers, more transition buckets and a wider lead.

On the flip side, Duke only turned the ball over 12 times, which is the lowest mark all season, excluding the aforementioned Stanford game. When the Blue Devils take care of the ball and get shots up on the offensive end, they are a tough out. 

Lawson brings out the best in her players, and everyone plays extremely hard. Freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa, standing at an unremarkable 5-foot-10, recorded nine rebounds and three crucial offensive boards amidst the towers of Virginia Tech. Another freshman, Jadyn Donovan, had a momentum shifting block against Kitley and stole the ball twice. The future is bright in Durham, and as these freshmen continue to grow, the team will shine. 

“We're playing freshmen more minutes than anyone else in the ACC, and the growth is coming, I think you can see it,” Lawson said. “If you've watched us play in November, watched us play in December, and now January, we're getting better.”

This season, Duke has shown they can compete with anyone in the country. And in this game, the Blue Devils proved they can beat them. 


Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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