Column: Duke women's basketball is an elite defensive team. Despite offensive issues, that makes it dangerous in March

Camilla Emsbo contests a shot from ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley.
Camilla Emsbo contests a shot from ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley.

Defense wins championships. If that is true, then Duke women’s basketball has the potential to make a run in the NCAA tournament.

Absolute lockdown defense has characterized this group all season long. Their intensity has kept them competitive with highly ranked teams, stifling even some of the country’s strongest offensive efforts. From the beginning of the season, both fans and opponents of the Blue Devils recognized, and admired, this defensive prowess.

“The game went exactly like we thought it would in terms of the difficulty that Duke poses, and they imposed their will defensively,” said Cheryl Reeve, head coach of USA Basketball after the team’s November scrimmage with the Blue Devils. “I think [Duke was] number two in the country if I’m not mistaken defensively, and that will continue to be a big part of their identity.”

She was not mistaken. Heading into the postseason, Duke ranks 40th in the country for total defense while also playing the nation’s 10th-hardest schedule, holding its opponents to a mere 57.7 points per game. That includes near-upsets against the eventual ACC and SEC champions and stunning wins against all but two foes above them in the ACC table. 

A week after the Blue Devils’ matchup against Team USA, they traveled to Palo Alto, Calif., to take on then-No. 6 Stanford. Despite falling short in a thrilling overtime bout, it was Duke’s second-half defensive heroics that nearly secured a monumental upset. The Blue Devils held the Cardinal to 71 points in regular time, more than six points fewer than Stanford’s average, and showcased their ability to capitalize on stops to keep themselves firmly in contention.

On Dec. 3, Duke hosted undefeated No. 1 South Carolina. As the clock wound down on the third quarter, the Blue Devils found themselves trailing by only three, limiting the Gamecocks to just 55 points. Although South Carolina ultimately secured a 77-61 victory, it was evident that the defensive efforts of the Blue Devils — specifically of freshman Jadyn Donovan — proved crucial in containing a team accustomed to scoring an average of 86.1 points per game. Donovan’s exceptional performance, featuring four blocks, two steals and six rebounds, underscored Duke’s resilience in curtailing its opponent’s offensive firepower.

According to head coach Kara Lawson, her squad’s defensive acumen did not truly become consistent until its dominant performance against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets average 68.3 points per game, but the Blue Devils were able to hold them to a measly 46.

“We talked about pressuring the ball and disrupting their offense. And I thought we did that in particular in that first quarter,” Lawson said after that game. “We’re starting to get better defensively. We’ve been inconsistent with it, and it was nice to see them put together a full game.”

Defensive stops lead to buckets. That’s exactly what happened in both the game against Georgia Tech and the subsequent matchup with then-No. 14 Virginia Tech and ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, who Duke beat 63-46. Through relentless pressure, the Blue Devils amassed an impressive tally of 10 steals and five blocks against the Hokies, setting the stage for a commanding victory in which the Blue Devils claimed a 19-0 fast-break point differential.

The next week was one of the Blue Devils’ best defensive performances of the season. They defeated then-No. 23 Florida State 88-46.

“We emphasized defense throughout our preparation for this game. As we know they are a high scoring team, they’re going to keep coming at us the whole game no matter what the score is,” said sophomore guard Taina Mair. “So we just made sure we were always in our right spots and just continued to communicate with each other and just being in the right spots on defense led to a great defensive game.” 

In the first half, Duke restricted the Seminoles to 22 points, marking their lowest scoring half all season. This set the tone for the remainder of the game, containing Florida State to a point total well below its average of 78.2. And the Blue Devils only allowed four points from their opponent in the final period.

“I was really pleased with our group in the fourth quarter,” Lawson said. “I think almost everybody played in that fourth quarter, and the group came in defensively and did a great job of executing what we wanted.”

But the Blue Devils reached their peak performance as the regular season drew to a close.

The Blue Devils held the then-17th ranked Orange to 45 points on the road, disappointing for a team that averages 74.4. This defensive masterclass was followed by another remarkable performance in which Duke limited the then-sixth-ranked Wolfpack to just 58 points. And finally, just four days later, the Blue Devils annihilated Virginia, holding the Cavaliers, who average 63.6 points per game, to just 54.

“I think we are in the midst of our best stretch,” Lawson said after Duke’s win against Virginia. 

In focusing on defensive strategy and execution, Duke has not only disrupted the offensive flow of its opponents but also taken advantage of defensive stops to generate scoring opportunities all season. And as the Blue Devils enter the NCAA tournament, that exact defensive intensity positions them as contenders.

“Kara [Lawson] has done a great job of getting them to buy in defensively, and they make it really hard for you to operate on offense,” Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore said. “They’re great defensively, they’re great on the boards. And when you do those things well, you got a really good chance of winning.”  


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