No. 7-seed Duke women's basketball downs Georgia Tech, emerges from ACC tournament opener unscathed

Ashlon Jackson holds her form after a 3-point jumper against Georgia Tech.
Ashlon Jackson holds her form after a 3-point jumper against Georgia Tech.

GREENSBORO, N.C.—Jackets buzzed.

In their opening postseason battle, the seventh-seeded Blue Devils handled business, defeating No. 10-seed Georgia Tech 70-58 in the second round of the ACC tournament Thursday evening at Greensboro Coliseum. Head coach Kara Lawson’s defense was out in full effect, holding the Yellow Jackets to a lowly 37.7% from the field and 25% from beyond the arc. Freshman guard and ACC Sixth Player of the Year Oluchi Okananwa led the way with 15 points, and senior center Kennedy Brown added 14 on 7-of-11 shooting.

“Proud of our group,” Lawson said after the game. “It was the first postseason game for a lot of my players. And I thought … the freshman reacted well. I thought they gave in and gave us a good lift.” 

After a Georgia Tech run in the second quarter had the Yellow Jackets breathing down Duke’s neck, two Ashlon Jackson threes regained some momentum. The teams exchanged missed shots and layups over the course of the following two minutes, fighting to gain some sort of offensive edge. Finally, an Okananwa steal let Duke run in transition, and Jackson converted an easy layup. After another errant Georgia Tech 3-pointer, Jackson cashed in another from downtown. Her 11-point second quarter helped the Blue Devils create breathing room with an 8-0 run. 

Duke then brought out the insecticide, as a Reigan Richardson shot that caught every part of the rim before falling in. On the next possession, Taina Mair swished an open three-ball before a cutting Camilla Emsbo used her momentum, absorbed the contact and converted the and-one opportunity. Supplemented by their four first-half steals and one block, the Blue Devils entered the locker room with a 38-26 advantage, a lead they would never relinquish.  

“In the second quarter, just came out and tried to show a little experience,” Jackson said on her performance. “It’s March … anything can happen in the postseason.”   

Out of halftime, Duke worked the offense through Brown. On their first possession, Brown and Jackson teamed up to create an easy layup on the roll for the center. The Derby, Kan., native then used her size advantage to back down her defender, shimmy and convert a turnaround baby hook. Brown then fought through contact to earn a tough bucket, and a few possessions later finished another baby hook. Taking a seat on the bench after bumping her head on the floor with 4:56 remaining in the third, the senior had contributed eight points on perfect shooting. 

“They’re a really physical team,” Brown said of the Yellow Jackets. “But I think I just was able to get into good position, and that kind of set me up for success.”

The Blue Devils continued to thrive in transition, using their speed to take advantage of Georgia Tech. One standout example occurred when Richardson skillfully blocked an Ines Noguero 3-point attempt and then found a flying Okananwa. The freshman slowed down, Euro-stepped around the defenders in the paint and coolly converted the bucket. After Richardson forced another turnover, Emsbo exploited the mismatch down low to masterfully convert an and-one. Another elite defensive closeout from Okananwa forced an errant shot from Aixa Wone Aranaz, and led the Blue Devils into the fourth quarter up by 13.

The early moments of the first half saw a bit more of a closer contest. Off the opening tip, the Blue Devils worked the ball inside to Brown, who dished to a cutting Jadyn Donovan, who faded away from just outside the paint for a quick two. However, the young Duke squad then showed some nervous energy, committing three turnovers in the first five minutes. Donovan had two of them, including a strip by Noguero that led to a Kayla Blackshear bucket. The Blue Devil defense remained strong, however, as Mair denied a driving Tonie Morgan. 

A Donovan layup out of a timeout seemed to settle the Blue Devils, who began sprinting fiercely in transition to turn their defensive stops into offensive buckets. Donovan found a flying Oluchi Okananwa on the fast break for an easy layup. After a quick stop, Reigan Richardson scored two skillful buckets: a transition layup that kissed off the glass and a catch and shoot off of an inbound play on the baseline. A 3-pointer that caught nothing but net from ACC All-Freshman First Teamer Okananwa completed the 11-0 run to end the quarter. The Yellow Jackets did not score for the final 4:34 of the first period, putting the Blue Devils up by nine.

For a moment, the Jackets were able to capitalize on lackluster box-outs and create a close contest. The Blue Devils gave up five offensive rebounds in the first half, none more crucial than in one sequence by Morgan. The guard found Kara Dunn, whose 3-point attempt caught nylon and ignited a run. After Kayla Blackshear overpowered Brown and layed in the two, Duke’s first-quarter work had evaporated, forcing Lawson to take a timeout with the Yellow Jackets within one.

“I thought we were really excited for the game and really hyped up,” Lawson said. “We’re so excited and we’re trying to really make a play and we were [doing] too much.”

Closing out the game, Duke kept Georgia Tech at bay with an array of scorers and their stifling defense. Richardson pulled up and chased in a jumper from inside the arc. Back on the floor, Brown continued her powerful offensive performance, converting another bucket from close range. Okananwa continued to push the pace to the end, demanding the ball and converting in transition. 

Duke’s postseason journey continues Friday, as the Blue Devils face familiar foe N.C. State. 


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