December 17, 2021 

What we learned about Duke against South Carolina

Duke's defense was impressive, but rebounding – and Aliyah Boston – were the difference

DURHAM, N.C. — Duke trailed by seven points and just 12.5 ticks remained on the clock. And still, there went Lexi Gordon, diving into photographers seated along the baseline, trying to recover a loose ball.

The No. 15 Duke Blue Devils never quit Wednesday night. Not when No. 1 South Carolina went on a 17-0 run in the first quarter, and not when the game was well in hand for the Gamecocks in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. From start to finish, the Blue Devils always believed they could win.

So, although Duke fell 55-46 to South Carolina, it’s that belief that set them apart from every other team this season. They trusted themselves and committed to their scheme. It wasn’t until the final buzzer sounded that Duke finally accepted defeat. And although they lost, the Blue Devils held the Gamecocks to their lowest scoring total of the season and forced them into their worst shooting performance of the season – 35.1%.

N.C. State and UConn couldn’t do that. And neither did Oregon or Maryland.

Kara Lawson is not one to accept concessions or moral victories, but putting forth that sort of defensive performance against the mighty Gamecocks is nothing short of impressive.

Just ask Dawn Staley.

“The zone – they did a great job of getting back and making us overthink the game. It allowed them to get back into the game and make it interesting,” the South Carolina head coach said. “They just stuck with it. We snuck out a win. And sometimes you got to get lucky when you’re not playing your best basketball.”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley speaks with reporters after her team’s win over Duke on Dec. 15, 2021. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Duke’s defensive recipe

Elizabeth Balogun brought the crazies inside Cameron Indoor Stadium to their feet by swishing a 3-pointer to start the game off. But then South Carolina imposed its will while Duke missed some good looks, and the Gamecocks broke off a 17-0 run. By halftime, South Carolina led by 16 points. In that moment, it somewhat seemed like the game was over.

“I liked the shots we got,” Lawson said. “So that’s a part of it. That’s the way the game is … Sometimes you make them, sometimes you don’t. We just stay positive. We always say shoot with confidence, and [the players] know that they’re not going to come out because they missed a couple shots.”

Duke refused to lay down for South Carolina. And the shots did begin to fall. Between the second and fourth quarters, Duke made 40.5% of its shots.

Most importantly, the Blue Devils never strayed from their game plan: employing a zone defense to stifle the Gamecocks’ offense.

Every time Aliyah Boston got the ball in the paint, two to three Duke defenders swarmed her. Duke also played stellar defense along the perimeter, holding the Gamecocks to just 2-of-11 shooting from behind the arc in the second half.

“I think we’re all very locked in to the game plan. Whatever the coaches want of us, we’re going to do to our best ability,” Gordon said. “I feel like we forced them to take some tough shots. They also made some tough shots. Honestly, we knew that the zone was what we were going to do, so we knew if we play how we know how to play, we’re going to be successful.”

Duke also had 11 steals, the most any opposing team has had against the Gamecocks this season. Celeste Taylor had five of them and Gordon had two. Taylor leads the ACC in steals per game this season with 2.6.

“The zone was pretty effective; they shot 35% from the field. I thought our first-shot defense was good. We just didn’t get enough defensive rebounds,” Lawson said. “I thought our doubles were effective. We forced a few dribble-outs, where Boston was forced to dribble away. I was pleased, outside of the defensive rebounds.”

Duke head coach Kara Lawson calls out to her team from the sidelines vs. South Carolina on Dec. 15, 2021. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Boston and rebounding are the difference

Ah, yes. About those rebounds.

Duke got absolutely obliterated on the glass, 44-26. South Carolina had nearly as many offensive rebounds (19) as Duke had defensive rebounds (20). The Gamecocks had 17 points off second chances.

So, while Duke can feel good about the defense it played and the shots South Carolina missed, it’s left to wonder what would’ve happened if it had limited the Gamecocks’ offensive rebounding. Victaria Saxton had six offensive rebounds, while Aliyah Boston had three.

”They’re big,” Taylor said of the Gamecocks. “They’re athletic from almost every position on the floor. That’s basically why they can get so many boards.”

The biggest and most athletic of them all is Boston. Despite facing double and triple teams most of the night at Cameron, the 6’5 forward with purple braids from St. Thomas stuffed the stat sheet with 19 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks, two steals and an assist. It was her second-highest scoring total of the season against a ranked team – she had 22 against UConn – and it was the first time this season she’s made two 3-pointers in a game.

Duke definitely made things difficult for Boston, but she persevered, analyzed the defense and found ways to impact the game.

“I think she’s just resilient,” Staley said. “She just continues to move. You have to play with a lot of pace to keep up with the amount of movement and activity that she has, whether it’s zone or man [defense]. She’s just a moving target.”

Duke outscored South Carolina 15-10 in the third quarter and began the final period on a 5-0 run to cut the Gamecocks’ lead to seven points. South Carolina, for a moment, seemed vulnerable. It appeared plausible that the Blue Devils might actually pull off the upset.

Then Boston put an end to all of that, crushing the Blue Devils’ hopes with a few dribbles.

In the next minute and seven seconds, Boston grabbed two rebounds, blocked a shot and scored four points, pushing the Gamecocks’ lead back to double digits. Duke called a timeout to reset. When play resumed, Boston got a steal and scored on a layup.

It became quite apparent that, as long as Boston was on the floor, South Carolina was going to win.

“Aliyah just wants to win. And she’s a playmaker. She’s going to do whatever it takes to win. She’s built her game up to where she recognizes what’s needed in any given moment,” Staley said. “She had to score because we wanted the ball to go into her. And she delivered.”

Duke’s Shayeann Day-Wilson brings the ball up against South Carolina on Dec. 15, 2021 in Durham, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Day-Wilson is legit, y’all

Aside from its valiant defensive effort, if there was one more positive takeaway for Duke in the game, it’s that Shayeann Day-Wilson has arrived. She’s a playmaker, she’s fearless, she’s relentless and she has boatloads of swagger.

For the fourth straight game, Day-Wilson hit three or more 3-pointers. She led Duke in scoring with 17 points and often kept the Blue Devils in the game. Time and time again, the 5’6 freshman drove hard into the paint against South Carolina’s vaunted front line. In other moments, she showed off her wicked handles and silky jumpshot.

“Shy is making big strides since she got here,” Taylor said. “I’m super proud of her because I know being a freshman is really hard and sometimes you go through your freshman slumps, but she’s doing a pretty good job at getting to where she needs to be and helping us win.”

Day-Wilson was the latest addition to this Duke roster, and she’s proving to be arguably the most important. A four-star recruit from Toronto – who featured for Canada’s U-19 national team this offseason – Day-Wilson had originally signed with Syracuse, but she reopened her recruitment this past summer when former Orange head coach Quentin Hillsman was ousted following a report by The Athletic that revealed a toxic culture and bullying. Day-Wilson arrived on campus in Durham on Aug. 29 – about two months before the season started.

Through nine games, Day-Wilson is Duke’s second-leading scorer – just 0.1 points per game behind Taylor – and leads all ACC freshmen in scoring with 13.7 points per game.

Late in the fourth quarter, Day-Wilson converted a four-point play – swishing a 3-pointer along the left wing, then knocking down a free throw – to cut Duke’s lead to seven points with just 20 seconds to play.

Day-Wilson joined an exclusive group of players who have scored at least 17 points against South Carolina this season: Raina Perez and Jakia Brown-Turner of N.C. State, South Dakota’s Liv Korngable, Buffalo’s Dyaisha Fair, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Angel Reese of Maryland. Day-Wilson is the only freshman among them.

“I thought she came in with great energy and looked to attack. It can be intimidating to attack the paint against them — they’ve got a lot of size, length and athleticism,” Lawson said of Day-Wilson. “She attacked in there and made some shots, made some plays. I thought offensively, she did a solid job.

“From an effort and competitiveness standpoint — and I feel this about the whole team tonight — in particular, about [Day-Wilson], she competed, and that’s what we want her to do every time out.”

The Blue Devils’ effort and competitiveness wasn’t quite enough to upset South Carolina on Wednesday night. But they arguably fared better than any other team so far this season against the Gamecocks. If Duke continues to play the way it did Wednesday – and cleans up its play just a bit on the boards and in the turnover department – that’ll be plenty good enough to beat a whole lot of other teams this season.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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