When they say defense wins championships, there’s no better case study in support of that theory than Duke’s 63-46 win against No. 14 Virginia Tech Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Eight points, just eight points is the mark the Blue Devils held the Hokies to in both the second and third quarters. In that same span they forced 13 Virginia Tech turnovers while keeping them to a combined 7-for-28 split from the field. This also included a 20-2 run by Duke to go from being the chasers to the ones decisively in command.
The Blue Devils were led by a combined 35 points from Reigan Richardson and Ashlon Jackson. But it was the defense that dictated this game, as Duke totaled 10 steals and five blocks on the night. It was 40 minutes of nonstop intensity that Virginia Tech simply could not match. The defense ignited the offense and the end result was a 19-0 fastbreak point differential that was indicative of the night both teams had.
The Blue Devils shot just 9-for-27 in the first half but came out of the locker room and finally ripped the lid off the basket. It was a tale of Jackson, who scored the first eight points of the half, including a jumper to give Duke its first lead of the game.
“We're a different team when she’s scoring offensively,” head coach Kara Lawson said of Jackson. “She can obviously make the 3-point shot and she's a good decision maker for us. She had it going and I was just letting her, you know what they say, letting her cook.”
While Jackson was putting the team on her back on offense, freshman guard Jadyn Donovan was leading the charge on defense with a block and two steals that led to immediate baskets during Duke’s massive 16-2 run.
Both sides of the ball were finally in sync and the Blue Devils (12-5, 4-2 in the ACC) were in a flow state. Jackson sparked a fire that quickly spread to the entire team, resulting in some of Duke’s best basketball of the season. With less than a minute to go, Graduate forward Camilla Emsbo went 2-for-2 from the line then freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa proceeded to steal the inbound pass, resulting in an open three that gave the Blue Devils a commanding 17-point lead.
“The second half, we felt like we just came out swinging,” Richardson said. “I feel like [in] a couple of games we came out [in the] second half pretty slow. So I feel like today we got to really bring the energy and the crowd brought the energy and we just fed off of that.”
Despite finally pulling ahead Duke never let up in the fourth, leading by as many as 20 points and putting the finishing touches to a spectacular comeback.
The game started as bad as it could for the Blue Devils on the offensive side of the ball. They missed their first nine shots, failed to score until midway through the opening quarter and didn’t convert their first field goal until the 2:27 mark. Duke’s threes were not falling and Virginia Tech (13-4, 4-2) quickly proved to be stout in the interior.
However, despite the Hokies getting off to an 8-0 lead and pushing the margin to as much as 13-1, The Blue Devils were not necessarily out of it. As poor as they were playing offensively, they were elite on the defensive end. This kept the game in reach and left the door open for them to get back in it. All it took was Richardson scoring the first layup to breathe some life into Duke’s offense, which finished the quarter outscoring the Hokies in the final two minutes.
“I think we just tried to get them to settle down,” Lawson said. “Their spirit was in the right place and their effort was in the right place. They were wanting to play hard and make things happen and I thought offensively we were just out of control.”
The second quarter was a sequel of the first — suffocating defense followed by lackluster offense. This was evident by the numerous occasions in which Duke would force a turnover or steal but immediately smoke the layup or turn the ball right back over.
However, similar to the first period, the Blue Devils’ play on the defensive end gave time for their play on the offensive end to catch up. They forced Virginia Tech to an 0-for-6 start to the quarter and seven turnovers. Jackson scored Duke’s first five points to bring them within single digits. However, Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley was like an invisible wall that the Blue Devils could not get through. Every time they would inch closer, she would re-extend the lead with her dominance in the post. She scored all but two of the Hokies’ points in the second frame.
But the last two minutes once again proved to be Duke’s sweet spot. They went on a 6-2 run to end the half, capped off by a steal-to-bucket by Richardson. Despite its offensive woes it marched into halftime down just five points — and kept marching to eventual victory in the third quarter and beyond.
Up next for the Blue Devils is a Sunday trip to Raleigh to take on No. 4 N.C. State.
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