Even when tested by Syracuse's elite offense, Duke women's basketball proves its defensive mettle

Jadyn Donovan hops above Syracuse defenders for a layup.
Jadyn Donovan hops above Syracuse defenders for a layup.

After back-to-back losses at the hands of Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, Duke desperately needed to right the ship in order not to fall into a three-game slide. In a Thursday night road test against No. 17 Syracuse, the Blue Devils did just that, dismantling the Orange’s dynamic offense and picking up their first ranked road win of the season while showing the ceiling for how elite their defense can be when playing to their full potential. 

“We've been kind of waiting to see if we could get a signature road win playing against a really good Syracuse team that's contending for the league title and just proud of our group. The things that we emphasize, they really took to heart,” head coach Kara Lawson said.

In the last two contests, Lawson’s squad failed to contain the superstars on the opposing teams, as Elizabeth Kitley and Hannah Hidalgo both excelled against the Blue Devils. With Dyaisha Fair on the docket for Thursday evening in the hostile JMA Wireless Dome, it seemed as if Duke would have another difficult night. 

However, the visitors got back to their roots against the Orange, making things tough all night for Fair and holding the home team 31 points below their scoring average for the season. The No. 5 offense in the league and the third-highest scorer in Fair were out of rhythm all night, shooting an abysmal 25% from the field and 18.8% from three, with the graduate guard going 7-for-25 total and 1-of-7 from beyond the arc. Just like they did against star Virginia Tech guard Georgia Amoore, the young Duke guards did an excellent job denying Fair easy buckets, setting the whole Syracuse offense off kilter. 

“Obviously Fair is a tremendous player,” Lawson said. “We just wanted to make her work for stuff, keep a hand up, stay in her face as much as we could, make things difficult. We were fortunate she probably missed some that she normally makes but I thought we did a good job just making her shots tough tonight.”

With their star not on her A-game, the Orange seemed to follow suit, as their next best scorers did not fare any better. Georgia Woolley, who averaged 14.2 points per game heading into Thursday night, was 3-for-11 and committed four turnovers, leaving Syracuse largely helpless on offense. 

Despite the incredible defensive performance, Duke did not even play close to its best possible game. It shot 41.5% from the field while only shooting 3-of-18 from downtown. The Blue Devils also had an astounding number of turnovers with 27, 12 more than the Orange. This mediocre-at-best offensive showing in this impressive win can largely only mean one thing: The Duke defense is capable of keeping it in games with any team in the country, including the best teams in the conference, even when the offense is shipping the ball away. 

Even if the total product on offense was not great, there were still some bright spots for Lawson’s group to build on. Point guard Taina Mair was efficient on the offensive end while also tasked with guarding Fair, dishing out a season-high nine assists. Kennedy Brown also had a very productive night down low, going 4-for-6 and finishing with a team-high 12 points. 

While they did not shoot great, the Blue Devils did an excellent job of crashing the glass, grabbing more than twice as many rebounds as the home team. Seventeen of these boards came on the offensive end of the floor, allowing Duke to have 18 second-chance points compared to just two for Syracuse. Jadyn Donovan was the primary engine in this regard Thursday night, as the freshman went for a career-high 15 rebounds, with seven of them coming on the offensive glass. As her offensive game continues to develop, Donovan’s defensive effort combined with her boundless defensive potential make the Upper Marlboro, Md., native a key weapon for Lawson to deploy against any team. 

“We felt like if we could compete on the glass and be physical, we'd give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Lawson said. “So to be plus-27 on the boards, just so proud of the group, that was led by Jadyn obviously with 15 rebounds. She had 11 in the first half and I thought just her energy and her physicality helped set the tone for us.”

This defensive performance was excellent, but it is imperative that Duke does not allow the performance against Fair and the Orange to be a one-off. It is likely that every team for the remainder of the season will have at least one extremely talented scorer and a highly effective offense. But if Duke has a similar defensive effort in the games ahead, it will be a tough matchup for every opponent so matter how talented their offense is. 


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