CLEMSON, S.C.—Littlejohn Coliseum marked Duke’s first taste of a road game against an ACC opponent with much more of a challenge than anticipated.
Duke and Clemson both came aggressive out of the gate, stifling each other’s offensive efforts with fiery defensive efforts including full-court presses that lasted nearly the whole game. Despite the defensive pressure the visitors placed on them, the Tigers, led by graduate student Amari Robinson and senior Mackensive Kramer, managed to pull away from the Blue Devils, taking the lead early on in the first quarter and not letting it go, continuing on their unbeaten streak at home with a 80-64 win.
“They wanted it more than we did,” Duke head coach Kara Lawson said after the game. “And in this game, if you do that, it doesn’t guarantee you win the game, but it gives you the best chance to win the game, so they definitely deserve to win this one.”
Following a near-upset against No. 1 South Carolina, the Blue Devils (5-4, 0-1 in the ACC) looked like a team that could hold its own against the biggest names in women’s college basketball. Duke entered the game as a comfortable 13.5 favorites, ranked 18th in HHS ratings while Clemson (6-4, 1-0) came in 97th, but from the first whistle, Duke came out as a different team than the one that had taken the top ranked team in the country Gamecocks to the final minutes.
Turnovers and miscommunications on offense plagued a Duke team that had not previously had much trouble protecting the ball heading into Thursday’s game. Shots seemed to fall easily for the Tigers, especially from the 3-point line where they converted 63.6% of their tries in the first half compared to Duke’s 42.9%.
The Blue Devils struggled to convert their chances in the first half despite the rebound efforts and scrappy never-give-up attitude that has become synonymous with Duke women’s basketball and kept it in tough games like its losses to Stanford and South Carolina. After trailing to close the first quarter, Duke did not score again until 6:06 in the second, on a pair of made free throws by junior guard Reigan Richardson.
Lawson’s frustration with her team was evident at the end of the half as the Blue Devils headed to the locker room 11-of-26 from the field, but Duke could not right it’s offensive woes in the second half.
As the game continued into the second half, Clemson’s defensive intensity and efficient sharpshooting proved to be too harsh for a Duke team searching for an offensive spark. In alI, the Tigers forced 14 turnovers and made 20 points off of those turnovers, two areas in which the Blue Devils usually thrive.
“Turning over has been a problem for us in different games this year,” Lawson said. “And so certainly just trying to force the ball into some tight windows on the offensive end, and maybe it wasn’t there and we were trying to force it.”
Even as the Tigers looked poised to sail their way to their first ACC win of the season, the Blue Devils did not go down without a fight. Freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa did what she does best, flying around the court to make offensive rebounds and defensive stops in an effort to put Duke back into the game.
Despite Okananwa’s best defensive efforts, the Blue Devils could not overcome their offensive struggles including a Clemson kept Duke at arm’s length throughout the second half, never letting the Blue Devils get closer than nine points away. Duke’s aggressive defensive efforts also led to numerous fouls which only extended the hosts’ lead as the Tigers went perfect from the free-throw line in the third quarter.
Pacing seemed to be a significant issue for the Blue Devils that Clemson expertly exploited. While Duke usually prefers to run a lightning-fast offense and defense, using its speed for fast-break points and its stamina to out-power opponents, the Tigers made a concerted effort to keep the game slow. This more lethargic pace forced the Blue Devils to take time to set up their offense, giving Clemson plenty of time to prepare defensively to stop them.
A key missing piece of the puzzle for Duke was the 3-pointer. While the Blue Devils are a team that primarily scores in the paint, against South Carolina they at least went 11-of-23 from beyond the arc, compared to 9-of-25 against the Tigers, including a second half with just three makes on 11 tries from deep.
On the other hand, Clemson continued on its 3-point spree against the Blue Devils, making its shots fall with ease en route to an impressive 11-for-18 clip. Robinson and Kramer were both key parts of Clemson’s stat line as they both went 3-for-3 from the three.
“I just thought we were really undisciplined without our schemes,” Lawson said. “Obviously gave up a high percentage from the 3-point line, gave up 11 threes. So too many quality looks that our defense gave up.”
The Tigers’ bench also provided the team a boost on its way to a win, scoring 24 of Clemson’s 80 total points. Whereas Duke’s bench normally provides the team with a source of offensive production and energy when the starters wear down, in Littlejohn Coliseum Thursday night, they remained quieter than usual.
As Clemson moves to 1-0 in the ACC, the Blue Devils head back to Cameron Indoor Stadium after the loss to finish up 2023 with a four-game homestand, starting off with Florida Gulf Coast Sunday afternoon.
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