'Kept their belief': Duke women's basketball's season of growth bears ultimate fruit in test against Ohio State

Jadyn Donovan rises above Ohio State defenders for a layup.
Jadyn Donovan rises above Ohio State defenders for a layup.

COLUMBUS, Ohio—At the end of the first quarter, it felt like the game between No. 7-seed Duke and second-seed Ohio State was already over. The Blue Devils had failed to make a field goal since the 8:05 mark in the period, and Duke was down 20-10. The Buckeye press was suffocating, and former Blue Devil Celeste Taylor was already causing problems on both ends of the floor. 

Then, at the end of the second quarter, Duke was down by just four points. At the buzzer at the end of the third, the margin had flipped to favor the Blue Devils by a point. When the game ended, the final score read 75-63. The visitors outscored the Buckeyes by 11 points in the final period. 

While the comeback victory may have been a surprise for basketball fans around the country, there were a few people who were not so shocked. That small number, unsurprisingly, included both Duke head coach Kara Lawson and her players.

“These guys never flinched. In the huddle, they were locked in,” said Lawson on her team after the game. “They kept their belief, even though it felt like we were getting run out of there at the beginning of the game, and we just possession by possession worked our way back.”

Duke, with all its concerns about inconsistency at the beginning of the year and early-game struggles against the Buckeye defense, managed to stay the course and win this one. More than anything else that is a testament to the growth and maturity of this exceedingly young team. 

Take, for example, the incredible performance from freshman forward Delaney Thomas. Thomas, who put up eight points and eight rebounds for the Blue Devils, stepped up in a big way off the bench Sunday. After classmate and fellow forward Jadyn Donovan picked up her fourth foul early in the fourth quarter, it was up to Thomas to defend Buckeye standout forward Cotie McMahon. McMahon had 23 points through three quarters, and was causing massive problems for the Blue Devils down low. But in the fourth quarter, the star had just four points, on 1-for-4 shooting. Thomas, who has stepped into her role as an important impact player off the bench this season, played more than 27 minutes and was +22 on the day.

“If you've watched us in the biggest moments [for] our team, Delaney shines really, really bright,” Lawson said. “She is unafraid to compete against the top teams and we needed her minutes tonight because Jadyn was saddled with foul trouble for most of the game.”

While the rookies were key today, the veteran leadership also cannot be forgotten about. Junior guard Reigan Richardson tied her career high with 28 points against the Buckeyes, along with a second-consecutive seven-rebound game. Sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson tacked on 13 points on 4-for-6 shooting from the field, and graduate center Camilla Emsbo played some key defensive minutes down the stretch, recording four blocks in less than 10 minutes on the floor.

The veterans, who know what it is like to play on the biggest stage, have been patient and kind to the newbies all year. Now, it has paid off as the Blue Devils showcase their development in the Big Dance. Lawson had nothing but praise for her older players as she discussed the way her team had grown throughout the season.

“If you'd seen us in the summer, it was a train wreck a lot of days. And they were patient with them and poured into that invested in them,” Lawson said. “Sometimes older players might be jealous of younger players or not want to help and that's not our culture. That's not our route. They did that and they stayed patient with them, to the point in March where they're ready to make an impact.” 

While there may have been concerns about Duke’s maturity and consistency at the beginning of the season, those have been thoroughly put to rest. Over the course of the weekend and especially Sunday, the Blue Devils have proven that they have the mental fortitude to hang in any game, regardless of the deficit. Duke came into a hostile environment against an excellent team and bounced back after going down by a margin that most would consider to be insurmountable. 

“This is why you coach, man,” Lawson said. “To see that growth, and now on a bright stage to be able to see them overcome something that they've struggled with during the year, it’s really, really satisfying.” 

Now, Duke will have the chance to prove that it can hang with the best of them. The Blue Devils will face off against the winner of Syracuse and UConn in the Sweet 16 in Portland, Ore. Neither team will go down easy, and the squad from Durham needs to keep its intensity cranked to the maximum through the coming rounds.


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