In second-round win against Georgia Tech, Duke women's basketball shows the benefits of success in the paint

Duke's frontcourt pairing of Camilla Emsbo (left) and Kennedy Brown (right) celebrate during their team's win against Georgia Tech.
Duke's frontcourt pairing of Camilla Emsbo (left) and Kennedy Brown (right) celebrate during their team's win against Georgia Tech.

GREENSBORO, N.C.—The Blue Devils threw a party in the paint. 

Headed into its opening game of the ACC tournament, No. 7-seed Duke set off to face a Georgia Tech team it beat resoundingly two months earlier. And while Thursday night’s victory was not as vicious as the 84-46 win Duke claimed back in January, the Blue Devils still put together an impressive win, going back to the basics and showing off one of the strongest parts of their offensive attack this season. 

“We wanted to touch the paint with the pass and with the dribble,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “I thought they did a great job executing that.”

The Blue Devils scored in the paint to near perfection. Both the first and the last points scored by Lawson’s squad were from inside, beginning and ending a comprehensive offensive performance by a team that has sometimes failed to match the intensity of its defense on offense. 

There was no sign of that lack of intensity against Georgia Tech. From the opening tip, Duke played aggressively, using a smattering of points in the key to propel it to victory. The Blue Devils have played their best basketball this season when they exploit opponents weaknesses in the paint, and Thursday night’s win perfectly illustrated that ability. 

Of the 70 points Duke racked up, 46 came from down low. Try as they might, the Yellow Jackets could not come up with an answer for the Blue Devils ability to weave between defenders and put up easy points. A large number of those came from freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa, who led her team with 15 points — eight from the paint — coming off the bench. Fellow freshman Jadyn Donovan put up 10 points for Duke going a perfect 5-for-5 from the field and tying for the lead in rebounds, but it was Okananwa, especially, who gave the Yellow Jackets a run for their money. 

“She is one elite athlete,” Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner said of Okananwa. “It's hard to get her under control. She's so fast. She changes the energy of that team when she comes on the floor. That's what it feels like from an opponent's point of view.” 

The energy Okananwa brings to the Blue Devils is palpable. She tends to come off the bench at just the right moments, subbing into the game and immediately making her presence known. Thursday night was no different. Mere minutes after coming into the game, the Boston native already had two defensive rebounds and took the ball off a fast-break to make a layup for Duke. 

“When she is playing out there, it feels like she's at a different speed,” said Lawson of the newly minted ACC Sixth Player of the Year

Okananwa’s ability to use her speed to sidestep defenders for points in the paint has proved vital to Duke on several occasions and was key to helping the Blue Devils widen the lead against Yellow Jackets in the second half. 

Refusing to let the freshmen have all the fun, senior Kennedy Brown also fought her way to the rim several times throughout the contest, finishing off the night second only to Okananwa with 14 points. 

Try as they might, the Yellow Jackets couldn’t stop Duke, especially Brown and graduate student Camilla Emsbo, from easily bypassing defenders and making it to the rim time and time again.

“[Duke] did a good job of finding those bigs, and they went to work,” Fortner said. 

Although Duke’s size certainly helped it bully Georgia Tech in the key, Yellow Jacket sophomore Kayla Blackshear also earned four fouls — three in the third quarter alone — causing her to be more cautious than usual in the second half. With their forward needing to avoid fouling out, the Yellow Jackets were left even more exposed under the net, and the Blue Devils were ready to make their opponent pay for leaving the paint unguarded.

Duke has been on an offensive hot streak as of late, and its paint scoring prowess is just another piece of the puzzle that Lawson’s squad started putting together in the final weeks of the regular season. That certainly carried on to their first taste of postseason action. To stand a chance at taking down a familiar foe in Aziaha James and N.C. State in the quarterfinals, Duke will need to keep the party in the paint going a little while longer. 


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