Five things to know before No. 7-seed Duke women's basketball tips off NCAA tournament play in Columbus, Ohio

Kennedy Brown prepares to shoot during Duke's home win against N.C. State.
Kennedy Brown prepares to shoot during Duke's home win against N.C. State.

With March Madness finally here, stakes are high. Each game is win-or-go-home from this point on, and every single trip down the floor will matter just a little bit more. On the women’s side of the tournament, the seventh-seeded Blue Devils are headed to Columbus, Ohio, to face off first against No. 10-seed Richmond, then will take on the winner of No. 2-seed Ohio State and No. 15-seed Maine. With the first games tipping off Friday afternoon, here are five things to know:

Defense still wins championships

One thing that has not changed throughout nearly the entire season has been Duke’s defense. Ranked 40th nationally and as one of the best of the Power Five schools in terms of scoring defense, the Blue Devils have allowed just 57.7 points per game. Even when the shots are not falling, Duke manages to stay in games by keeping its opponents away from the basket and picking up easy transition buckets.

While its inexperience may cause an issue, this group is otherwise built as a tournament team. With a healthy amount of depth and a flexible rotation, the Blue Devils can adapt to different schemes quickly and change how they play to best counter an opponent. That hard-nosed defense helps too, as the fast, aggressive style this team plays forces turnovers and disrupts opposing offenses. To put it simply, Duke has been able to knock its opponents “down to its level,” so to speak, all year. The Blue Devils impose their style of play on the game with brute force, and win when opposing teams fail to keep up. If they can continue to do that through the tournament, they will be a formidable group to face regardless of seeding differences.  

… but offense helps too

That being said, it certainly helps to score a lot of points when a team’s aim is to win basketball games. Duke’s biggest wins this season have been when offense and defense combine well to put together complete performances. When the shots are falling, like they did for sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson in a 22-point performance against No. 5 Stanford early in the season or freshman forward Delaney Thomas when she dropped 18 on North Carolina, this team can play good, competitive and often winning basketball against some of the top squads in the country. When the shooting percentages drop, like they did in an uninspiring 64-58 loss to Miami in which Duke shot just 4-for-19 from deep, the games get tougher. The Blue Devils can play defense against anyone. What has been harder this season has been finding the basket at the other end. 

Bounce back

It was a tough end to both the regular season and ACC tournament for Duke, as the Blue Devils lost first to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, then came back with a win against Georgia Tech in the first round of the tourney before dropping in the ACC quarterfinals to N.C. State. While morale may have been low after a relatively early exit from the first postseason tournament, Duke has had plenty of time to practice, rest and find its stride again. Blue Devil head coach Kara Lawson gave her squad a few days off after the loss to rest and recover, and has since had the team working hard in the gym to get ready to go for the imminent tough gauntlet of games.

“When you have that much time off, we want to make sure that you know that end of the year fatigue and just the soreness and the little bumps and bruises that can accumulate, that you're able to recover from those,” Lawson said. 

Do the homework

One rarity that the Blue Devils will experience in their first game of March Madness is playing a team they have faced before. Duke played Richmond to open the regular season, blowing the Spiders out 83-53 in Durham. That being said, both teams are very different from when they first faced each other. Richmond put together a strong season in the Atlantic 10 and earned an automatic bid after winning the conference’s championship. Duke faced some hardship with a tough loss to a weaker Davidson group and a near-collapse against Columbia, but ultimately recovered through the rest of the regular season. Both teams have grown tremendously, and will look entirely different than the first time around when they hit the floor Friday afternoon. While the systems of play may be similar to the first game, neither team can afford to rest on its scouting laurels coming in.

“Since [that first game], we’ve experienced a lot of growth during the season as it happens. Teams are different in March,” said senior Kennedy Brown in a post-selection press conference.  “Definitely a big advantage in some ways scheme-wise, kind of [knowing] what [the Spiders] like to do.”

Get comfortable

The most important thing, especially for a team with just four players who have seen NCAA tournament action before, will be to get acquainted with the tournament setting quickly. While the stakes might be higher, the game itself has not changed. The rules are not any different, and the baskets are the same height off the ground as they have always been. That being said, it can be tough to realize that in the moment. Teams will be getting national coverage, and will be facing off against challenging opponents in unfamiliar environments. 

Duke, for example, has not played a Big Ten team all year. These first two games will be played in the Buckeyes’ home arena, with a second matchup likely against the hosts themselves. In a hostile, high-energy environment with players battling to extend their college careers for a few more precious games, it can be hard not to get wrapped up in the moment. It remains to be seen how this group, one that has struggled with consistency and issues surrounding its youth throughout the season, handles it.

“Now I think they're going to get into their normal game rhythm,” Lawson said of her young group. “There's going to be excitement, there's going to be a lot of feelings running through them. I have a ton of first time NCAA Tournament participants. Five freshmen, [Taina] Mair, [Camilla] Emsbo. They've never played in it. And so there's a lot of excitement when they pop up there because for a lot of people it’s going to be their first time playing in March Madness.”

Lawson knows about the tournament, and has been trying her best to prepare her team mentally for the tough road ahead.


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