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Duke Buries Vandy Down The Stretch

Duke 69, Vanderbilt 48. December 7, 2006. Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke got their stiffest test of the season from previously undefeated and #11
Vanderbilt but still emerged with a 20+ victory and another opponent held under
50 points. Amazingly, the only opponent to reach 50 points this season was
Marist, a team that annoyed the Devils greatly. Though the final margin was
comfortable, the game itself was anything but for the Devils, who only led by
about 7 points for much of the game. The game turned on a controversial
intentional foul that ballooned into an 8-point possession for the Devils,
almost doubling their lead.

Vanderbilt was shooting over 50% from the field coming into this game. That
included 4 players shooting over 40% from three. Dee Davis is one of the
nation's toughest point guards, while Carla Thomas is an aggressive & versatile
power forward. Combining those two with their sweet-shooting wings meant that
Duke's defensive approach was very different in this game. Up to this point,
Duke usually picked up full court on defense and initiated a lot of 3-quarter
court and half-court traps in order to force bad passes into the middle of the
court for steals. This usually helped fuel Duke's transition game and led to
lots of easy baskets.

Against Vandy, Coach G was worried about the precision of their offense. She
stated that if your rotations weren't perfect, then a trap would lead to a
wide-open shot. So she opted to mostly stick to man-to-man defense, extending
3 and even 4 players out to the three point line. That forced Vandy to attack
off the dribble, which isn't necessarily their strong suit. Vandy took the
opposite approach for halfcourt defense: they tried to push Alison Bales as far
out as possible, clog the lanes and turn Duke into a jump-shooting team. They
didn't want to double-team Bales because of her ability to pass, and hoped to
contain her one-on-one.

Results were mixed for both teams. After giving up a couple of early open
looks to sharpshooter Caroline Williams (whom the Duke fans tormented the whole
game), the Devils strangled Vandy on offense. A team shooting over 50% for the
season was held to just 33% for the game and 27% from three. Meanwhile, Duke
shot 46% from three, including some key early shots that established a lead and
2 key back-to-back treys in the second half that stopped a Vandy run. On the
other hand, Duke was impatient on offense. This resulted in some bad shots but
mostly materialized as unforced turnovers. Duke had 23 turnovers and just 7 of
them came off of Vandy steals. That included 3 offensive fouls, several balls
thrown out of bounds in hopes of a home-run transition basket, and several just
plain sloppy moments.

Duke started the game with back-to-back threes from Abby Waner and Lindsey
Harding. Bales set a high screen for Harding's shot. When Carrem Gay grabbed
an offensive rebound (one of 14 for Duke), she tossed it to Wanisha smith for
another trey. Vandy quickly cut that lead to 9-7 after a Williams three.
Bales looked pretty bad in the early going, forcing up a horrible miss on her
first possession and getting whistled for an offensive foul and turning it over
a couple of other times. Everyone reminded her that she was a low block player
and needed to get down there and fight for position; as Coach G put it, "Your
bread is down low, and the dessert is outside". Ali came back to score 8
straight points for Duke: 2 on post-ups, 1 on a stick back and 1 on a pretty
turn-around jumper with Thomas in her face. When Harding found Smith for a 15'
baseline jumper, Duke took a 19-10 lead.

Vandy never let things get out of hand, as Davis stuck a three to keep her
team in it. Duke turned the ball over quite a bit down the stretch of the first
half, scoring mostly on free throws and stickbacks. Bridgette Mitchell had a
big part in holding Vandy at bay with 3 stickbacks and 4 offensive rebounds.
One of those stickbacks came when it seemed that she deliberately threw up a
bad shot when covered so that she could go to the other side of the basket for
an offensive board and the score. Of course, Mitchell was taken off the
dribble twice by the clever Davis, which is why Bridgette didn't play much in
the second half. Duke took a 29-22 lead into the lockerroom. Vandy got as
close as 6 but not closer down the stretch. Both teams coughed up the ball
quite a bit; while Duke turned it over 12 times to Vandy's 10, the Devils still
had 12-5 edge in points off turnovers. Duke's 11-2 edge in second-chance points
also helped make up for their sloppiness with the ball.

The Commodores cut the lead to just 3 points to start the half off with a
couple of tough shots. Bales hit a long jumper and Harding followed that up
with a 15' jumper to make it 33-26. After a first half where she and Davis
neutralized each other, Harding stepped up in a big way in the second half.
After a VU turnover, Harding spun in for a potential twisting three point play,
but she missed the foul shot. Two Carrem Gay foul shots put Duke up by 11.
Just when it looked like Duke was going to pull away, Tina Wirth stuck a jumper
after Duke tried to trap. After a jumper with the shot clock running down,
Vandy pulled with 5 when Thomas got a stickback.

Co-captain Harding once again stepped up with a huge three, and she followed
that up with a pass to Waner for a three. Vandy went on a 6-1 run to make it
44-38. When Waner missed 2 free throws, one could sense momentum starting to
swing. Somehow, Vandy's Liz Sherwood was open under the basket and Dee Davis
shot a pass into her. Out of nowhere, Harding materialized in front of the
pass to take away a sure score. At the other end, Bales was fouled and hit
both ends of a one-and-one. Harding then stole the ball again and zipped
downcourt to score on a three point play. Vandy scored again and got the ball
back with under five minutes left. Then came the play that changed everything.

Vandy started running out of time and took a desperation shot with the shot
clock running down. However, it didn't run all the way down, and Harding
grabbed the rebound. The Vandy players froze as though they expected the 30
second shot clock to expire, but Duke kept going full speed. She found Waner
on the left wing, and she drove to the hoop against Williams. She passed the
ball over her head to Smith, who finished with a layup. However, Williams
fouled Waner hard after Smith had taken the shot and was tagged with an
intentional foul. Waner missed the first shot, but by that time Vandy coach
Melanie Balcomb was hit with an technical foul. (When asked if she got an
explanation for the play, she said "no--that's what I was trying to get".)
Waner later stated that she'd been fouled hard than that before and didn't
ascribe any maliciousness to the play. Harding stepped up and hit both techs,
and then Waner hit the back end of her foul shots. Duke retained possession
and Harding found Waner for a three to make it an 8-point possession and give
Duke a commanding 57-40 lead.

Vandy started pressing and pulled within 15, but Smith hit 6 straight free
throws to salt things away. The Devils pounded the Commodores on the boards,
winning that battle 41-26. Vandy not only shot poorly from three, they only
got 2 attempts in the second half. Despite the sloppiness with the ball,
Duke's overall performance was excellent against a team that thrives on
efficiency. Once again, the Devils built their identity on defense and made
their opponent do things they didn't want to do. It was great to see the
starting five mesh together so well at the defensive end; Duke's team defense
is as good as I've ever seen it.


** Bales: After a lackluster start, Bales finally got angry and powered up for
scores inside. It's as though she needs a real challenge before she steps up
and unleashes her full arsenal of moves. Her matchup with Thomas was an
interesting game within the game. Ali usually doesn't guard her opponents' top
post player by design, because Coach G noted that Ali is such a great help
defender that she prefers her to play off that player instead. Ali did go
after Thomas, turning her into a jump shooter. Thomas adjusted and took Bales
off the dribble a couple of times, but going 5-16 and turning the ball over was
indicative of how hard she made Thomas work. In the second half, Bales didn't
get the ball as often, but she did stick a crucial jumper and also hit 2
important free throws. Bales also had 4 monster blocks that erased sure
scores. Throw in 9 rebounds and you have a fine overall game.

** Gay: Carrem had a quiet first half but ruled the boards in the second half
with 7 and also picked up 4 points. She was a bit careless with the ball (4
turnovers) but did a great job on Wirth, limiting her to 3-9 shooting. Gay
played 30 minutes, the most in her career.

** Smith: Nish hit a big early three and a baseline jumper, but had several
agonizing turnovers. That didn't stop her from playing stifling defense on
Wiliams, holding her to 2-9 shooting. Nish was busy in the first half setting
Bales up for scores in the post, and was a big factor in getting Ali going.
And of course, Smith scored during that crazy 8-point possession for Duke,
finishing that pass from Waner. Smith also coolly sank 6 straight free throws
to remove any doubt about the game's outcome in the last couple of minutes.

** A. Waner: After hitting that early three, Abby had a rough first half with 3
turnovers and 2 fouls. She still played solid defense, but put a lot of
pressure on the other starters to score. The second half was another matter,
as she hit a three that put Duke back in control and then sank that killshot
trey to put Duke up 17. Abby attacked the basket more in the second half and
wound up with 8 free throw attempts. Another mature performance for Duke's
leading scorer.

** Harding: After going 1-6 in the first half, Lindsey had 12 points in the
second half on 4-8 shooting, including a three that broke up a run, a three
point play on a runout, a twisting jumper and a pull-up jumper. She held Davis
to 2-8 shooting and just 4 points in the second half. Harding turned the ball
over 6 times, which showed just how tough Davis played her. The two steals
that Harding came up with were both crucial, as was her heads-up initiation of
the transition play that ended the game.

** Cheek: Joy traveled on her first possession and didn't play much in the first
half. She did come up with a steal in the second half.

** Mitch: Brittany was the only guard who came off the bench. She found Bales
inside for a score, grabbed a steal and a rebound, but otherwise didn't have a
huge impact. Interestingly, Mitch came in for Bales when she fouled out.

** Mitchell: Bridgette attacked the offensive boards with her usual fervor,
getting three crucial stickbacks in the first half. However, she was
frequently out of position on defense--though I'm not sure using her to cover
Davis was fair to Bridgette. Davis was far too clever for Bridgette, faking
her out a couple of times. Mitchell is so talented that Coach G has to find
minutes for her--but Bridgette has to be in the right place at the right time
on defense.