Duke women's basketball fell short against UConn. But that shouldn't detract from a promising, gritty season

Reigan Richardson drives with the ball during Duke's loss to UConn.
Reigan Richardson drives with the ball during Duke's loss to UConn.

PORTLAND, Ore.—With 1:21 to play in the third quarter, the game looked over. Nika Muhl hit her lone triple of 40 minutes of game play, and the Huskies pushed their lead to 42-22. 

Even the crowd thought it was over. Fans painted in Southern California red and gold, staying around to scout their next opponent, headed to the exits alongside the atmosphere of a once-intense Sweet 16 matchup in the Moda Center. UConn’s nervousness, heightened after being held to just 23 first-half points, shifted to celebration along the sideline and the traveling Huskies fans. 

But the Blue Devils did what they’ve done all season long facing a setback: They responded.

Out of nowhere, Oluchi Okananwa executed an and-one layup, Reigan Richardson hit a jumper and Okananwa nailed a three, successfully cutting the once-20-point deficit to a mere five with 1:59 to play. Duke fans rose to their feet, head coach Kara Lawson tightened her fists and the Blue Devils jumped into their full-court press. After forcing a jump ball with the possession arrow pointing its way, Duke had an opportunity to cut the game to one possession. 

“Our mindset was to just keep fighting,” Richardson said.

“It’s been our mindset all season to compete,” senior Kennedy Brown added. “We still had time to make a run.”

Ultimately, Richardson and Jadyn Donovan’s jumpers in the dying embers of the matchup did not fall, and UConn sent the Blue Devils packing with a final score of 53-45. All night long, Paige Bueckers lived up to her vast expectations, pouring in 24 points along with just a pair of turnovers against a staunch Duke defense. 

“Defensively, I thought we played well enough to win,” Lawson said. “[UConn] is a high-powered offense.”

Early challenges cost Duke an opportunity to move forward and play against Southern California in the Elite Eight. These struggles at the start of games are something that the Blue Devils are all too familiar with. 

After losing to a scorching-hot Colorado team in last season’s NCAA tournament, much of Duke’s future was uncertain. Starting guard Shayeann Day-Wilson transferred to Miami and superstar guard Celeste Taylor shifted her initial intent to remain with the program to take her talents to Ohio State.

Adding further setbacks, Duke lost Vanessa De Jesus to a season-ending injury in August. The point guard was set to be a key contributor to Duke’s program. By October’s Countdown to Craziness, the team was down to 10 players, just enough to field a five-on-five scrimmage for the event. 

“We were the youngest team in the ACC,” Lawson said.

Much like Saturday night against a star-studded UConn team, Duke pushed through injuries, roster construction uncertainty and a tough early season schedule to finish 11-7 in the ACC and earn a No. 7 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. 

Nothing was handed to the Blue Devils all year. Truly, Lawson’s squad deserved all that came its way, including the first Sweet 16 appearance under her leadership.

“As I told our team after the game, I'm just really proud of them, proud of the season we've had and all the growth that we've had,” Lawson said. “It’s been a joy.” 

On Saturday, Duke failed. It scored 13 first-half points, turned the ball over 23 times and was unable to stop the Huskies’ offense in the third quarter. Those disappointments ended up being insurmountable, and it was Duke that would be leaving Portland before Monday’s Elite Eight matchup.

But it’s important to acknowledge the Blue Devils’ character, their ability to face adversity head-on and take the fight to the 11-time NCAA champions with the game winding to a close.

Aside from Brown and Camilla Emsbo, Duke has all of its players eligible to return, and it is set to bring in a recruiting class that includes two top-20 players and the potential for a third. If all goes to plan, the Blue Devils won’t be the team facing much adversity next season, but the one delivering it to others.

“Our future is really bright with our young players, they will learn from this,” Lawson said. “I think this experience will help motivate them in a good way to try to get back to this stage again.”


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