LINCOLN — Her team firmly on the ropes in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Duke women’s basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie told her players about the fun they were about to have coming back from a 13-point halftime deficit.
The second-seeded Blue Devils then turned a 34-21 hole into a 68-59 win over No. 7 seed Oklahoma State to advance to the Sweet 16. But how they did it — with defense — might have been most pleasing to coach and players.
“That’s the best defense we’ve played all year in any half,” forward Haley Peters said. And though Duke has allowed opponents only 53 points per game this season — holding Virginia Tech to 26 for a whole game — defense has been a consistent challenge, Peters said.
McCallie agreed. Defense is what has her concerned as Duke prepares to play Nebraska, which scored 73 and 74 points in its first two NCAA tourney games. NU has a “terrific” and “durable” point guard in Lindsey Moore, McCallie said, and forwards Jordan Hooper and Emily Cady “can pop 3s quicker than you can say ‘boo.’”
The Huskers’ ability to spread the floor, draw defenders out of the paint and get layups at the basket is the “big challenge” to defend, McCallie said.
“They run a great motion offense,” said McCallie, who’s led her team to three straight Elite Eight berths. “They screen well and they’ll go back door on you.”
And while the Blue Devils have one of the nation’s best shot blockers and rim protectors in All-ACC center Elizabeth Williams, they no long have the defensive energy of point guard Chelsea Gray, who dislocated her knee in mid-February. She led the team in steals with 3.56 per game.
“Her loss has been significant on the defensive end in terms of steals, deflections and even rebounds,” McCallie said. After Gray’s injury, Duke lost 69-65 to Miami (Fla.).
“We didn’t defend anybody at Miami,” Peters said. The Hurricanes shot only 36 percent in their win, but got to the line 24 times.
Gray’s replacement, Chloe Wells, averages nearly two steals per game this year. And shooting guard Alexis Jones has handled some of the point guard work as well. McCallie said both have played well recently.
Though Gray also pitched in 12.6 points per game, Duke’s high-octane offense hasn’t been affected since her injury. The Blue Devils have averaged 71.5 points in the nine games Gray has missed. All but one of those games were against NCAA tournament teams.
McCallie points to Duke’s overall “balance” for why the offense is so tough. Including Peters, Duke has three shooters making more than 40 percent of their 3-pointers. The Blue Devils get to the free throw line 18 times per game and shoot 74 percent there. And they have a dependable low-post scorer in sophomore Williams, who draws double teams and kicks passes out to open shooters.
“We have lots of kids who can do different things, so when we get the ball in the right places, we can score,” McCallie said.
So can the teams still left in the Norfolk, Va., region. If Duke gets past NU, it likely plays No. 1 Notre Dame, which scores 78 points per game. The Blue Devils have been able to reach the Elite Eight in recent years, but haven’t beat the nation’s best teams, losing twice to Connecticut and once to Stanford.
Peters said the team’s talked about what it would mean to make a Final Four — and what it will take to do it. Peters and McCallie agree that a key is “playing in the moment.” Ignoring the big picture and winning each possession.
“I think you have to see the puzzle, but more for how each piece fits together,” Peters said. “Nebraska is that next piece.”
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