No. 7-seed Duke women's basketball falls to No. 2-seed NC State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament

Oluchi Okananwa goes up for a putback in the first half against N.C. State.
Oluchi Okananwa goes up for a putback in the first half against N.C. State.

GREENSBORO, N.C.—There’s nothing better than a little madness in March. 

In a true back-and-forth contest, the seventh-seeded Blue Devils fell to No. 2-seed N.C. State 54-51 in a raucous ACC Tournament quarterfinal contest. For the Wolfpack, Aziaha James led the way with 16 points and eight rebounds in a 39-minute performance. On the other side of the ball, Oluchi Okananwa led Duke with a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double. 

“It was a tough battle,” Duke head coach Kara Lawson said after the game. “Unfortunately for us, we came up on the short end of it but proud of my group… The final thing for us is to be able to execute late and come out with a win.”

With four minutes to go in the first half, the Blue Devils unleashed a 8-0 run fueled by Okananwa’s pair of driving assists and a couple of Delaney Thomas jumpers. With the run, the Wolfpack lead fell from 29-19 to 29-27 going into the locker room. 

“We're getting the experience that we need to be ready and to compete for the [NCAA] tournament,” Okananwa said.

To start the second half, the Blue Devils upped their level on defense. Much to the frustration of the sea of red inside the stands of Greensboro Coliseum, Duke gained a 31-29 lead and held the Wolfpack scoreless for the first four minutes of the third quarter. The four-minute stretch added to N.C. State’s scoring drought from the second quarter, accumulating for a total of eight minutes of scoreless basketball.  

“The effort that [my team] gives me, the competitiveness they bring, the team mentality they have, that's not normal in college basketball,” Lawson said. “I’m lucky to have this group.”

Perhaps as a response to poor perimeter shooting, the Blue Devils placed an emphasis on driving to the rim as the third quarter wound to a close. Additionally, Kennedy Brown and Camilla Emsbo were used as passers out of the post, allowing for increased spacing and cutting from Duke guards. As a reward for its relentless approach on both ends, the Blue Devils led for the majority of the third quarter but entered the fourth down 43-42. 

“They pulled away a couple times, but we were able to bring the game back to us,” Lawson said. “That's real growth for us.” 

With just under eight minutes to go, Duke finally found its range as Richardson nailed the team’s first triple of the matchup, and what a time to do so, bringing the game level at 45 apiece. 

As the fourth quarter progressed, N.C. State’s size and experience paid dividends as the Wolfpack pulled in five offensive rebounds. Although the Blue Devils kept up their defensive intensity, their offense stagnated, resulting in a six-minute scoreless stretch. 

“They're a really good defensive team, and you have to credit them for making things hard for us,” Lawson said of the Wolfpack. “Our decision making was poor in that fourth quarter.” 

Nonetheless, Duke kept it within three at 52-49 with under two minutes to go, and it was anyone’s ballgame. As the clock wound within a minute, Zoe Brooks took matters into her own hands, driving to the rim and finishing for two with the shot expiring. From there, missed threes by Taina Mair and Brown secured the victory for the Wolfpack. 

“[Brooks] played great today,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said postgame. “For a freshman on this stage for the first time, I’m proud of what she did.”

The contest started frantically in Greensboro as N.C. State standout guard Aziaha James showcased her electric offensive ability early with a spin and score in the lane and a no-look assist through traffic. Although James was feeling it early on, the Blue Devils continued to punch back, highlighted by a pair of creative Jadyn Donovan scores. After the first six minutes, the Blue Devils led the Wolfpack 12-8. 

Notably, Duke guard Reigan Richardson, the Blue Devils’ leading scorer, fell early with a lower-body injury, forcing Lawson into an early substitution. After heading to the locker room and then riding a stationary bike, Richardson would return to the contest with just under three minutes to play in the first quarter. 

Both squads featured quick guards in this matchup, and understandably placed emphasis on playing with pace early on. Whether it was Okananwa, Mair or Donovan, the Duke guards were especially quick getting up and down the floor. As a result of their efforts, the Blue Devils tallied four of their 16 first-quarter points via the fast-break. 

“Our team is playing at their best when we play with pace, and we want them to be aggressive,” Lawson said. “We're an efficient team with transition when we run, so it definitely is a point of emphasis for us in every game.” 

Nonetheless, the story of the first quarter was James. The first-team All-ACC guard played all 10 minutes, pouring in eight points, three rebounds and two assists on 3-for-4 shooting. The Wolfpack entered the second quarter leading the Blue Devils 21-16. 

In the first half, 6-foot-5 N.C. State center River Baldwin was a force on the defensive end, blocking three Blue Devil shots and limiting Brown to five points. 

As the second quarter progressed, the Blue Devils’ shooting woes were highlighted as the Wolfpack steadily grew the lead to 27-19. Lawson’s squad started the matchup 0-for-8 from deep, including a couple of uncharacteristic misses from Ashlon Jackson, who entered the contest shooting 36.4% from three. 

“I thought we had quality looks,” Lawson said. “We just didn't shoot it well, that happens sometimes.”

Although the Wolfpack got to the foul line 20 times compared to Duke’s 15, it struggled from the stripe, cashing in seven, or 35%.  

Duke now awaits Selection Sunday March 17 to see its position for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. 

“We've got two weeks to work on some things, try and get better and be ready for these moments when they come in the NCAA tournament,” Lawson said. 


Share and discuss “No. 7-seed Duke women's basketball falls to No. 2-seed NC State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament” on social media.