'We were right there': Duke women's basketball sticks to its plan — and its guns — despite loss to Virginia Tech

Oluchi Okananwa drives to the rim during crunch time of Duke's loss to Virginia Tech.
Oluchi Okananwa drives to the rim during crunch time of Duke's loss to Virginia Tech.

BLACKSBURG, Va.— It feels like it has been the story of the season for the Blue Devils. 

Against another talented team in No. 12 Virginia Tech, Duke held on until the final minutes before ultimately falling apart, losing 61-56 in Cassell Coliseum Thursday night. Despite the loss, the Blue Devils certainly have something to be proud of — this was a close game against an excellent team, and while the finish was disappointing the performance on the whole was solid.

“We played a good game tonight. I’m proud of my team. I wish we could have won of course, but I’m proud of them and that’s a really good team,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “I don’t think there’s anything we should be ashamed about.”

Through the first three quarters and most of the fourth, this one was close. Neither team was really able to extend the lead past one or two possessions, and the defense was near-perfect for both teams. That is why the point total was relatively low: Most of the shots taken were contested or otherwise low-quality, looking to beat the shot clock. In no aspect was there a lot of breathing room. It certainly helped that star Hokie guard Georgia Amoore had a rough shooting night, going just 4-for-21.

That said, there was a counterweight to Amoore’s off night. Her name was Elizabeth Kitley, and she had another incredible performance against the visitors from Durham. Despite coming up against one of the better defensive centers in the ACC in Kennedy Brown, Kitley was able to score nearly at will. She shot a borderline-absurd 13-for-17 from the floor. Amoore and Kitley had a lethal pick-and-roll game, using high ball screens to generate entry passes for Kitley. From that point on, she was near-automatic. Her shot was almost identical every time: a turnaround jumper from the paint, over the outstretched arm of Brown or backup center Camilla Emsbo. Despite solid defense, there was nothing that could stop Kitley.

“Against a great player, sometimes they’re going to score,” Lawson said on Kitley. “You can try to make the shots as difficult as you can. She made a lot of difficult ones.”

For the Blue Devils, it was a more well-rounded performance. While not a great shooting night, it certainly was not an offensively bad one. Duke shot 19-for-52 from the field, and 5-for-18 from deep. The Hokie defense showed out in a big way, and a lot of the Blue Devil shots were long two-pointers off the dribble. There simply was not enough space to do anything else. While Amoore did not have a good offensive night, her pace and ability to disrupt on defense caused issues around the perimeter. At the same time, Kitley dominated the post and prevented easy layups.

If anything can be called a quality loss for Duke, it is this one. The defense was still some of the best that has been played all season and the scoring was solid against a stifling Hokie group. Compared to how a game like this likely would have gone last year, this was still a solid jump.

The Blue Devils are one of the youngest teams in the ACC. On Thursday evening, they came against a grizzled squad that brought back its key pieces from a Final Four run. The fact that they were able to hold their ground for almost a whole game against this group — for a second time this season — is indicative of this group’s ceiling. Despite being the objectively weaker squad in one of the most hostile environments in basketball, Duke played through to the end and showed flashes of what it can be.

“Our defense gave us a chance to win, put us in a one-possession game on the road against a team that hasn’t lost at home all year,” Lawson said, “... we were right there.”

It has admittedly become challenging to continue advocating for the “just wait” approach at this point in the long season, but there will be many more opportunities for this Duke team. Not only is the remainder of the regular season stacked with almost exclusively ranked teams, but the ACC and NCAA tournaments will provide plenty more opportunities for this team to prove itself. Iron has sharpened iron to this point, and will continue to do so down the stretch into the postseason.

Lawson seemed disappointed, but not unsatisfied, with the way Thursday’s game turned out. She knows what she has, and what her team is capable of going forward. There is an abundance of talent with this group, and close games against so many great teams have proven that no single performance was just a flash in the metaphorical pan.

“These are the games you want to play,” Lawson said on the challenging schedule her team has faced. “These are the games you want to be in in February. They mean something to you, they mean something to the standings. They mean something.”

Now, it will be up to this young group to bounce back and focus as it prepares to take on another highly touted team. Notre Dame is fresh off a beatdown loss against N.C State, and the Fighting Irish will not be taking any prisoners when they walk into Cameron Indoor Stadium Monday night.


Share and discuss “'We were right there': Duke women's basketball sticks to its plan — and its guns — despite loss to Virginia Tech” on social media.