5 things to know before No. 7-seed Duke women's basketball looks to upset UConn, advance to Elite Eight

Reigan Richardson sails the ball over Ohio State guard Celeste Taylor during Duke's second-round win.
Reigan Richardson sails the ball over Ohio State guard Celeste Taylor during Duke's second-round win.

For the first time since 2018, Duke women’s basketball is dancing in the Sweet 16. After defeating No. 2-seed Ohio State in a monumental upset Sunday, No. 7-seed Duke will take on UConn in Portland, Ore., Saturday. Before tip-off, here are five things to know: 

Richardson’s red-hot shooting

Duke’s entire season has been defined by strong team play and ball-sharing, and as such, no individual player has accrued gaudy statistics on the year. In other words, every Blue Devil has helped the team get within four games of the program’s first national title. However, one player in particular might just be the reason why Duke is in Portland at all — junior Reigan Richardson.

So far in the NCAA tournament, Richardson has shot lights-out from the floor. In Duke’s opening-round contest against No. 10-seed Richmond, the guard scored 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting, which included back-to-back buckets late in the fourth quarter to ice the game in the Blue Devils’ favor. Against Ohio State Saturday, the Charlotte native had a career-defining performance, tying her career high with 28 points and going 3-for-3 from outside the arc. To make her performance even more impressive, Richardson was frequently shadowed on defense by former Blue Devil Celeste Taylor, one of college basketball’s best defenders and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

Richardson and the Blue Devils face a different beast altogether in UConn. The Huskies have allowed field-goal and 3-point percentages of just 35.5% and 28.2% on the season, respectively. In order to overcome UConn and potential future opponents, Richardson — a streaky shooter — will need to continue her dominant stretch of play.

Versatile defense

After the victory against Ohio State, sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson said “we knew that whenever our defense started to work and we started to play Duke defense, then we would be good.” 

That Duke defense — perhaps the hallmark of the Kara Lawson era as head coach — has shown up in completely different yet very effective ways in the Blue Devils’ NCAA postseason. Against Richmond, Duke allowed the Spiders to go 10-for-18 from 3-point range, but forced 16 turnovers and held Richmond to 2-for-8 shooting from behind the arc in the second half. Facing Ohio State two days later, the script completely flipped. The Buckeyes only turned the ball over nine times compared to the Blue Devils’ 16, but Ohio State was held to 1-for-11 3-point shooting, with the sole make coming late in the fourth when the game was effectively decided. 

It bodes well for the Blue Devils that they have held opponents to a 15.8% 3-point clip in their last six quarters of play, all the more important against strong shooters like Paige Bueckers and Nika Muhl. In order for Duke to advance farther in the tournament, it will need to lean on this defensive versatility and shut down its opponent by any means necessary, whether it be through strong perimeter defense or turnovers.

Rely on the bench

The Blue Devils have run a deep rotation throughout their entire season, with nine of their players having recorded at least 400 minutes this year. Much like the team’s defense, its bench has proven effective in different ways. For example, ACC Sixth Player of the Year Oluchi Okananwa recorded eight points and eight rebounds against the Spiders in 22 minutes of play. Two days later, fellow freshman Delaney Thomas copied her — eight points, eight boards — while sinking all six of her free-throw attempts against Ohio State.

“We have seen Delaney do this all year,” Lawson said after the victory against the Buckeyes. “The biggest moment[s] … Delaney shines really, really bright. She is unafraid to compete against the top teams.”

This weekend, the Blue Devils will have to lean on Okananwa and Thomas to provide quality minutes as both scorers and effective rebounders. Additionally, Lawson will likely choose to rotate center Kennedy Brown with Camilla Emsbo in order to help contain UConn superstar forward Aaliyah Edwards. In any case, every Blue Devil will need to put their best foot forward against the Huskies, but what makes this Duke team unique is that their spark can start off the bench.

Comeback orchestrators

The Blue Devils have been tested all year by having to claw their way back in contests. Against North Carolina Feb. 11, for example, the Tar Heels led by as much as 14 late in the third quarter, but several clutch plays down the stretch led to a tremendous overtime victory for the Blue Devils. With the stakes even higher in the NCAA tournament, Duke has confidently stepped up to these challenges once again. The Blue Devils overcame nine- and 16-point deficits against Richmond and Ohio State, respectively, to earn victories en route to the Sweet 16. In the latter game especially, overcoming the point differential combined with a ferocious home crowd in Columbus was no easy task, yet the Blue Devils remained confident while executing on both sides of the ball.

“I think it speaks to their competitive spirit and it also speaks to their willingness to be coached,” Lawson said about the Blue Devils’ pair of comebacks. 

No matter the challenge or deficit, Duke will never truly be out of a game until the clock hits triple zeroes. Even against the elite teams of women’s basketball this weekend, that fact will remain true.

An experienced coach … and an old foe

In the early 2000s, Lawson played four strong seasons of college basketball at Tennessee under legendary head coach Pat Summitt. While the Volunteers didn’t win a national title while Lawson was there, they played in two national championships and made it at least as far as the Sweet 16 for each season. The Blue Devils’ current run is Lawson’s farthest in four years of head coaching, but either way, she knows the challenges and pressures of competing at the highest level of the sport.

“I am who I am. I don't try to be anybody else,” Lawson said about her coaching style. “[The players are] around me every day. I think they feel that investment and the love, but they also feel that I challenge them too. That's what they want. That's why they came here.”

It is poetic that the head coach who denied Lawson and the Volunteers those two national titles — Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma — will once again be coaching a Connecticut team facing Lawson in the NCAA tournament. Against Auriemma, currently in his 39th year with the Huskies, the Blue Devils will need to execute perfectly to have a chance of scraping by a titan. That starts with Lawson, who will need to have the best-coached game of her career against the team that bested her thrice in the NCAA tournament. Should Duke earn its first Sweet 16 victory since the 2012-13 season, this coaching will need to be kept up in an Elite Eight matchup against either No. 1-seed Southern California or No. 5-seed Baylor. 

For Lawson, Saturday’s contest isn’t just a chance to earn her crowning achievement thus far as head coach. It’s a shot at vengeance that has been some two-and-a-half decades in the making.


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