While head coach Kara Lawson would never be willing to admit it, Duke found itself in the rare position to claim what was arguably a moral victory against No. 6 Stanford Sunday afternoon. The Blue Devils played down to the final possession, surviving a career game from star Cardinal forward Cameron Brink in regulation before just barely losing 82-79 in overtime to the host team.
Coming off a very close win against Columbia earlier in the week and a disappointing loss to Davidson Thursday night, the Blue Devils seemed to be on a downward trajectory. The attack was sputtering, and at moments it felt like this squad might be headed for a similar fate as last year’s team experienced: defensively sound, but offensively weak.
On Sunday in Palo Alto, Calif., Duke demonstrated what it is capable of at the other end of the offensive spectrum. When the Blue Devils are firing on all cylinders and when the shots are falling, the squad from Durham is capable of playing like one of the best teams in the nation. Moving forward, this game will be key in building confidence and helping a very young Duke squad grow as the season goes on.
“Obviously we’re coming off a loss from Davidson, but it just shows us who we actually are,” said sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson on the defeat earlier in the week. “The team that lost to Davidson, that wasn’t us. The team that lost to Stanford tonight, we’ve got a lot of building to do. But it gave us a lot of confidence and I’m sure that whenever we play another big team like that it’ll be a different story”
The star of the show for the visitors Sunday afternoon was Jackson, who had a dominant night. She sank six of her 10 attempts from behind the arc, racking up a total of 22 points. Equally impressive was the share of her points that came in the latter half of the game. She scored 19 of them after the buzzer sounded at the end of the second quarter, including shooting 5-for-6 from deep. Whenever the Blue Devils began to trail or run out of steam, Jackson was there with a shot to reenergize the squad and bring the visitors back into the game.
Jackson was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school but struggled at times in her initial season, coming off the bench consistently but not playing a huge role on the team. Now at the beginning of her second campaign, the China, Texas, native has proven that she has what it takes to play in big moments.
“[Jackson] is kind of growing into this role as more of a feature player … She had one game in particular, against Coastal Carolina, she had 25,” Lawson said. “And then she’s had some games where she wasn’t as good. So we’re just trying to even them out, you know, it’s really hard to play in these environments and try to be a consistent performer. I was proud of her.”
While Jackson was the primary source of energy for this Duke squad Sunday, the rest of the team showed up big-time too. Notably, it was a big night for players coming off the bench. Freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa continued to show flashes of greatness, dropping 12 points. Similarly, first-year forward Delaney Thomas put up 14 and shot 60% from the field. One of few dark spots on offense was junior guard Reigan Richardson, who had a less-than-stellar game. Richardson had just three points on the night and made none of her 10 attempts from the field.
While obviously the team would have preferred to come out of this one with a win, there was a noticeable lack of doom-and-gloom in the press conference. Both Lawson and Jackson expressed optimism for the rest of the season, as this game served as a major confidence-booster. After barely squeaking by against the Lions and dropping a winnable game earlier in the week, the matchup against the highly-touted Cardinal proved to a young team that it is more than capable of putting up a fight against top teams.
“[I’m] just really proud of my group,” Lawson said. “Just to hang in there and go toe-to-toe. [The Cardinal] are a really good team. I think they’re one of the best teams in the country. I haven’t seen many better than them.”
Ultimately, this is an inexperienced squad. There will be inevitable hiccups, like those that were present against the Wildcats. Despite that, Sunday’s game was invaluable for a team that still needs to find its identity. The Blue Devils know they can hang with the best. Now, it will be up to them to execute.
The ACC is tough, but No. 1 South Carolina will be even tougher. The high-flying Gamecocks are coming to Durham in a few weeks, and by all accounts Duke is ready to put up a fight.
“We didn’t win in this environment today, [but] we competed well,” Lawson said. “And as a young team, we’ve got to figure out how to make that extra step to be able to do that. And I believe we will.”
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