During the heart of league play, every game matters. This rings especially true in the ACC, arguably the best conference in women’s hoops, where five of the league’s teams are ranked in the top 25, with three other squads receiving votes in the poll.
On Thursday night, Duke had one final opportunity to polish its game before entering the toughest portion of the schedule against ACC bottom-feeder Wake Forest. But rather than assert themselves as a clear factor to watch in the conference title race down the stretch, the Blue Devils showed glaring signs of weakness and youth early before eventually pulling away from the Demon Deacons to secure a 69-46 triumph.
Under head coach Kara Lawson, Duke has established itself as a program that utilizes defensive tenacity as its calling card, excelling at grinding its opponents down and emerging victorious in gritty slugfests. Heading into Thursday’s matchup, the top of the ACC defensive standings is held down by Duke, who gives up a measly 57.6 points per game. Consequently, the Blue Devils’ losses often come on the heels of poor offensive performances, and this has been the case in all four of their league losses this campaign.
“I think we're just a completely different team, when we're all fully locked in and aggressive on the defensive end,” said freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa after Thursday’s win. “Defense is really something that we let define us. And in that first half, that was not us. I think that was a big reason why we got them hot and gave them the confidence.”
In its most recent loss to Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., Lawson's team shot an abysmal 40% from the field and was 4-of-19 from three, numbers even its league-best defense could not overcome.
In the early going of contest against the Demon Deacons, it seemed as if these issues were going to pervade another game, as the young Blue Devils struggled to establish a steady heartbeat in the opening portions, coughing up 13 turnovers in the first half and shooting just 40.9% from the field and 28.6% from downtown while their opponents were a perfect 6-of-6 from beyond the arc heading into the locker room.
“We're a lot better when we're not throwing it to the other team and so we've got to take care of the ball,” Lawson said. “That was a big one. Settle down, we had to find a way to not give them as many open threes.”
With a young team and one that lacks depth like Duke does, the presence of a veteran leader on the floor can be a major factor in steadying a slow start. For the Blue Devils, this role has often been occupied by senior center Kennedy Brown, who is one of the premier post defenders in the league. However, the Derby, Kan., native found herself with two fouls within the first four minutes of the game, leading Lawson to sit her for the remainder of the first half.
“She's our defensive anchor and so she's one of the best defenders in the country and it's hard to see that for some people, because she's not flying through the air and blocking shots,” Lawson said. “And she's not, but her intelligence and her positioning and she's everything for us defensively, so to have her go out and not play very many minutes in that first half, I thought really we struggled defensively.”
With its anchor down low missing, Duke’s defense predictably faltered, as the visitors jumped out in front on the back of a 16-0 run that compacted open looks from three with multiple attempts at the charity stripe. In her place, Lawson turned to graduate transfer Camilla Emsbo, who was far from her best, finishing with a minus-13 plus-minus for the game.
When Brown returned for the second half, Duke’s effort increased instantly. In the third quarter, the Blue Devils put together an elite defensive performance akin to what fans have become used to under Lawson, holding Wake Forest to a 1-of-12 rate from the field and a five-point tally for the whole period, tied for the third-lowest amount allowed in a single quarter in program history.
As the defense turned up a notch, the offense found its swagger back in tandem. Sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson went on her own eight-point run during the third quarter, and the guards found much greater success driving to the rim and getting buckets or drawing fouls after a first half in which the team attempted zero free throws. Despite Jackson’s brief explosion, Taina Mair and Okananwa carried the load for the backcourt, going for 17 and 16 points, respectively. In fact, the pair were the only two Blue Devils to score in the fourth quarter, helping ice the game for their eighth-straight win at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
While Duke was able to shake its early demons and end up finishing with a comfortable win against a team that has won zero conference games this season, it is doubtful that this pattern of play will hold up heading into a stretch that includes four ranked opponents and a matchup with archrival North Carolina. If the Blue Devils continue to get off to sluggish starts and Brown finds herself in foul trouble, it will become extremely difficult to win, especially when matched up against elite centers like Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley.
“As a coach, you'd love to play four great quarters 18 times. It's not going to be that,” Lawson said. “And so what you're looking for is a response, and I say this a lot, an individual response to a bad quarter, a bad half or a bad play, and then a team-wide response to a bad quarter, bad half, and we had that response.”
It has not happened too often this season, but if the level of play displayed for the second half can be translated to a nearly complete 40 minutes, Duke may find itself in the midst of the ACC title hunt after this upcoming gauntlet.
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