Duke women's basketball's first half against Richmond was precarious. But, importantly, it found a way through

Reigan Richardson readies a shot during Duke's win against Richmond.
Reigan Richardson readies a shot during Duke's win against Richmond.

COLUMBUS, Ohio—“Tale of two halves for us. That first half, I thought Richmond did a great job of executing, to be honest with you, and we had some breakdowns as well,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson after her team’s NCAA first-round matchup Friday afternoon. “They did a great job of executing, we had far too many defensive breakdowns and that led to the eight threes of the half and really, that was the issue.”

Lawson could not have put it any better. In the first half against the Spiders, the Blue Devils looked doomed to bow out in the first round due to a lack of discipline and shot-making ability. However, Duke flipped the switch after the break, dominating the second half en route to a 72-61 victory and an opportunity to clinch a Sweet 16 berth Sunday against Ohio State. 

In the first matchup between these two teams in the opener to the 2023-24 season, Duke completely throttled Richmond at Cameron Indoor Stadium, cruising to a 30-point victory behind a career performance from junior guard Reigan Richardson. However, teams can change greatly from the start of the season to the onset of the postseason, and the 10th-seeded Spiders looked like a completely different squad in the early going at the Schottenstein Center Friday. 

As the campaign progressed, Richmond proved itself as one of the nation’s premier shooting teams from beyond the arc, as it finished the regular season eighth in Division I in 3-point percentage with a team-wide mark of 37.7%. While this tendency did not reveal itself in the November matchup as the Spiders shot just 7-of-23 from range, it certainly reared its ugly head in the early periods the next time around.

The three ball was falling with ease for the “visitors” from the tip, as they had an impressive 5-for-7 mark in the first 10 minutes, headlined by three makes by Addie Budnik that resulted in Duke surrendering 26 points in the first quarter, one of its worst defensive periods of the season. On the other end of the floor, the Atlantic-10 champs were deploying a zone that had a young Blue Devil team searching for answers, as they repeatedly settled for long jumpers rather than attacking the middle. As a result, Duke went an abysmal 1-of-14 from the field in the second quarter, only mustering five points and going into the locker room down nine. 

Whatever Lawson told her team in the locker room clearly rang a bell, as the Blue Devils came out firing in the third quarter. The period began with a quick 6-0 run in which the game plan seemed to shift to attacking the paint and crashing the glass, with a seemingly demoralizing lead all of a sudden dwindling to a single-shot margin. 

“We were down nine, it probably felt to some of us that it was a lot more than that,people wearing blue in the stands probably felt like more than that,” Lawson said. “But I tried to just speak the reality to them: ‘Okay, we're down nine, we have 20 minutes left. Let's have a good start.’”

Duke had a clear size advantage over its opponent with senior center Kennedy Brown manning the post, and it used that to its benefit in a big way down the stretch. The Blue Devils made it an emphasis to get downhill every possession and attempt to clean up offensive rebounds if possible, and this worked to perfection. 

“It's one of the things we talked about at halftime. If I remember correctly, we were getting outrebounded 15 to 14 at the half and so we talked about how we needed to get some extra opportunities,” Lawson said. “Our shots weren't falling in that first half and the way you safeguard the poor offensive performance if your shots aren't falling is you get more of them, you get second chances.”

In the second half alone, Duke hauled in 11 offensive rebounds, resulting in 16 second-chance points. As pressure continued to be applied to the rim, the Spider defense continuously sunk in to try and get a stop and haul in a rebound. As the defenders came, Duke repeatedly found the open woman that was left by this defensive system, going 6-for-11 from beyond the arc in the second half and helping to ice the game. 

While the two halves were vastly different in terms of result for Duke, there was one constant: Richardson. The junior guard was simply spectacular, keeping the Blue Devils afloat early with 13 first-quarter points on her way to tallying 25 points and seven rebounds by the game’s end, the second-highest point total in her career. The highest? Her first go round against the Spiders. 

“I feel like once I saw that first shot go in, the room just kind of got bigger for me,” Richardson said. “I feel like I just read the defense and what they're giving me. I just took the opportunity to take a shot.”

Lawson’s young squad cannot afford to hit any speed bumps Sunday, as No. 2-seed Ohio State and former Duke star Celeste Taylor await. The Buckeyes employ a lethal press that has stifled their opponents all season, as they are fourth in the country in turnover margin and were spectacular in their first-round matchup against Maine. Its offensive attack is led by standout graduate guard Jacy Sheldon, but Ohio State has four players that average double figures including Taylor, making it an extremely challenging matchup for Duke especially on the road.

If the Blue Devils sputter out to the same slow start they had against Richmond, it will almost certainly end an impressive year for Lawson’s group. But if Duke can hit the ground running from where it left off in the first round, the ship might just keep on chugging all the way to Portland, Ore., for the Sweet 16. 


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