Beats' picks: Can No. 7-seed Duke women's basketball continue run, upset Bueckers and UConn in Sweet 16?

Reigan Richardson plays defense against Ohio State.
Reigan Richardson plays defense against Ohio State.

No. 7-seed Duke, fresh off a second-round upset of No. 2-seed Ohio State, make the trip to Portland, Ore., Saturday evening for a date with No. 3-seed UConn. The Chronicle's beat writers are here with their predictions about whether the Blue Devils can continue their remarkable run and advance to the Elite Eight:

Elle Chavis: 63-60 Duke 

I have not picked against Duke in March Madness so far, and that streak will continue for the Sweet 16. Will this game be a challenge for the Blue Devils? Absolutely. Could they go down early and be forced to claw their way back for the victory? Almost certainly. Led by Paige Bueckers, the Huskies boast one of the best rosters in women’s college basketball. They specialize in putting up shots and dismantling their opponent’s defense, but I believe that Duke head coach Kara Lawson’s squad will continue its defensive dominance. Although Reigan Richardson has been the center of the Blue Devils’ offense, Duke has some hidden weapons in its pocket in the form of bench players like Emma Koabel and Delaney Thomas who have both seen increased minutes in the tournament so far. Lawson’s team is used to being the underdog and having to fight for scrappy wins, and the win against Ohio State showed me all I needed to see to have continued faith in the Blue Devils. 

Franck Djidjeu: 65-61 UConn

The Blue Devils have already exceeded expectations this season, picking up marquee wins against elite teams throughout the regular season, and of course upsetting No. 2-seed Ohio State to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time in six years. However, the same obstacle that derailed them back in 2018 stands in their way again this year. Although UConn isn’t quite the dominant force it was in the 2010s, it is still as elite of a program as it gets. Unlike the Buckeyes, who were on a downward trajectory heading into last weekend’s game, the Huskies are on an 11-game win streak and are peaking at the right time. As well-coached and physical as Duke is, UConn can match those strengths, while also boasting the best player on the court. I think the Blue Devils keep it close, but ultimately fall to the Huskies. 

Caleb Dudley: 69-63 UConn

Even after watching Duke pull off two tremendous comebacks last weekend in Columbus, Ohio, I am not sold on the Blue Devils going any deeper into this year’s NCAA tournament. While Richardson has been performing as one of the best ballers in the tourney up to this point, I doubt her hot streak will be enough to propel Lawson’s squad to victory against a veteran-laden Huskies group that also has a legend of the game roaming the sidelines in Geno Auriemma. Bueckers has been spectacular all season long and I don’t see even the stout Duke defense fazing her. The season will stop in the Sweet 16 for the young Blue Devils. 

Lilah Gorfain: 61-59 Duke

I’m going to take a chance on the Blue Devils. If at the start of the season, Lawson’s team were like baby birds, now, spring has arrived, and they are taking flight. Let’s not forget that Duke just defeated No. 2-seed Ohio State by 12 points, holding them more than 16 points below the Buckeyes’ average score. I won’t say that Saturday will be pretty, because it won’t be. It’s going to be a fight. But the Blue Devils have transformed into a confident and gritty young team, and are ready to take this on. Bueckers is the biggest threat for the Huskies, leading their formidable roster, but Richardson also knows how to get it done. Not to mention that Duke has a deep and solid bench to work off of, switching up the flow against UConn. Most of all, the Blue Devils are hungry for a win — and that fire will push them past the Huskies to take a narrow victory.

Ryan Hamner: 68-57 UConn

As much as I’m afraid to pick against Duke for the first time this year, I’m afraid its run will end here. The Huskies are rolling and it’s hard to see them slipping up against Duke’s youth. Bueckers, in my opinion the best player in the nation, will likely roll again, leading her team to victory. For the Blue Devils, Richardson has been playing well this tournament, but if she slows down even one bit, that could be Duke’s pitfall. It will take elite games from almost all Blue Devils to get this win, and I just don’t see that happening Saturday. It's been a great year for Duke, but one that I think will end in the Sweet 16. 

Martin Heintzelman: 65-58 UConn

I have pretty consistently picked against Duke this year in these pieces, but I truly believe that Saturday's game will be the final straw for the Blue Devils. The Huskies are as strong or stronger roster-wise compared to Ohio State, and Bueckers is up there with Caitlin Clark in the race for the best player in the women's game. Duke will put up a fight, but ultimately the disparity in roster talent will put an end to the squad. It will be a close one, but this will be the end of the road for the Blue Devils.

Luke Jovanovic: 55-53 UConn

If there ever was a time to upset the mighty UConn and Hall of Famer Auriemma, now would be that opportunity for Duke. Riddled with injuries across the roster, the Huskies only played six players in their effort fending off Syracuse by eight points in the round of 32 last weekend. Duke enters the game riding the momentum high from upsetting Celeste Taylor and Ohio State, and Richardson’s 26.5 points per game on 58.3% shooting from the field throughout the tournament. While the tussle will be competitive, ultimately Bueckers is too much for the Blue Devils defense to handle, and Duke ends its great tournament run in agonizing fashion. 

Riya Khatod: 67-63 UConn

Duke has had a good run, coming from behind to beat Richmond in the round of 64 and then upsetting No. 2-seed Ohio State, but I cannot see them beating Bueckers and the rest of the third-seeded Huskies in this Sweet 16 matchup. UConn is on a roll, dominating their past 11 opponents, 10 of them by upwards of 20 points. The Blue Devils’ intense pressure and lockdown defense is bound to help keep this game close, especially if Richardson continues performing at her peak on the offensive end. But I think the favorites just have too much firepower, and it is likely to be the Huskies who continue their march to the Elite Eight.

Colton Schwabe: 70-56 UConn

All good things must come to an end, and I’m afraid the Blue Devils’ improbable run will hit a wall as they match up against Bueckers and the Huskies. Duke’s impressive victory against Ohio State brought awareness to its underdog spirit, but UConn is now aware of the team’s affinity for upsets. The Huskies will have prepared well for their Sweet 16 matchup, and Lawson’s squad may not be able to handle whatever UConn brings to Portland. If Duke comes out of the gate strong, it may be able to keep the game close for the opening quarters, but I believe the Huskies’ talent will slowly but surely extend the team’s leading margin, punching UConn a ticket to the Elite Eight.

Garrett Spooner: 65-61 UConn

This season, it looks as if UConn is not the UConn of old. In December, the Huskies fell to No. 17 in the AP Poll, its lowest rank in 30 years, and last weekend, it took a mighty effort to take down Syracuse in the round of 32. Nonetheless, Bueckers and company will be too talented for Lawson’s squad in this one. Taina Mair will need to play her best game of the season, likely picking up Bueckers full-court for the entire 40 minutes. Expect fireworks, especially given Duke’s defensive prowess, but I see the Huskies coming out on top in a nail-biter in Portland. 


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