by Jim Sumner
Inviting the Connecticut women to visit is a little like hosting the Mongol Horde: there's a good chance your village is going to get torched.
That's the way it's been for Duke recently. The Blue Devils went into Monday's game having lost four straight to the Huskies, by an average margin of 32.5 points per game.
There was a feeling that this year would be different. The Huskies are talented, no doubt. But they have road losses to Baylor and Notre Dame and Duke's recent recruiting successes seemed to have closed the talent gap. Connecticut has more experience, but Duke was at Cameron, where they haven't lost since, well the last time Connecticut showed up. That would be two years ago.
In most respects Duke did match Connecticut. Duke fought the Huskies to a standstill on the boards, forced 21 turnovers (to Duke's 15) and kept the visitors off the line. Duke held Connecticut to 61 points, matching their lowest total of the season, against Baylor. That would be undefeated and top-ranked Baylor.
But somewhere along the line, you've got to put the ball in the basket, that most basic of basketball skills. Two statistics stand out. Duke had 18 more field-goal attempts than Connecticut but converted six fewer. Duke grabbed 15 offensive rebounds but had only two second-chance points.
That's how you lose 61-45. Duke was equal opportunity in its shooting woes. Not one Blue Devil shot over 36 percent from the field. Duke missed from inside, from outside, in transition, with the shot clock about to expire, open shots, contested shots.
Duke coach Joanne P, McCallie said Duke wanted to use the clock and make Connecticut play defense for long periods of time. But with the shot clock running down, Duke went one-on-one, rushing bad shots.
"We don't move the basketball, don't connect and play together," McCallie said. "I'm very disturbed by the eight assists. We broke out of what we do offensively. We were too one-on-one oriented and we paid a price for that. We weren't aggressive in the paint. You've got to penetrate, kick and get the ball to the other side of the floor. You've got to move the basketball, shift it, move it to other places. You don't change offensively based on who you play. You impose yourself."
Haley Peters said Duke lost its focus several times. Two lapses were crucial. Duke led early, at 5-4 and 8-6. They trailed only 19-15 but Tricia Liston missed two jumpers that would have cut the lead to two. Connecticut answered with a 6-0 run that gave them their first double-digit lead. It reached 14, at 31-17, before Duke closed the first half on a 6-0 run.
Duke closed to 34-29 and the almost capacity crowd was roaring its approval. Then the rim shrank. One sequence sums up Duke's woes. Trailing 37-29, Chelsea Gray found Elizabeth Williams in transition for an easy lay-up. Williams missed. Richa Jackson grabbed the offensive rebound but missed the follow shot. Peters dug out another rebound and found Liston for a wide-open 3.
Three misses in seven seconds.
Duke ended up in a 12-minute field-goal drought. Actually, there must be a stronger word than drought. Dying of thirst in the desert sounds more like it.
Peters finally nailed a 3 but that only made it 50-36 and the Huskies closed it out with the skill one would expect from them. Duke did fight and claw to the end, a striking contrast to last season's blow-outs.
Peters says she noticed improvement but not enough. "We played better defense than we did last year. I wouldn't say we competed for 40 minutes. There were little lapses in the first half and a couple in the second half. Maybe it's closer but not enough. You've got to play like that for 40 minutes. If you want to beat a team like that, you have to lock in for 40 minutes."
McCallie started one freshman and four sophomores and it would be unfair to her program to suggest that they can't learn and benefit from this game. "I hope this team thinks we can beat anybody," she says. "There's something wrong with them if they don't. And they're really going to feel that regret after they see the film tomorrow. We played a little young. We imposed ourselves defensively. We need to learn how to play together, off each other in those situations."
Duke has played one of the nation's toughest schedules and its three losses were all to top-ten teams. "We want to be in the fire," McCallie maintains. "We might have gotten burned a bit but we did some good things. Lessons across the board and we go from here."
Duke got exactly zero points from its bench. That's in 36 combined minutes. And reserves Shay Selby, Allison Vernerey and Kathleen Scheer are Duke's only upperclassmen.
Duke had committed only two team fouls with less than three minutes remaining. Duke fouled five times in 41 seconds to get Connecticut in the bonus.
But they did so without replacing their starters with designated foulers off the bench. Thus, Peters committed three fouls in 16 seconds and fouled out. The game was lost by that point but the strategy was still curious.
Duke got Connecticut's 6-5 starting center Stephanie Dolson in early foul trouble and she played only 13 minutes. But freshman Kiah Stokes came off the bench to lead everybody with 12 rebounds.
Elizabeth Williams picked up three fouls in the first half but finished the game with 31 minutes. But her foul trouble led to a loss of aggression and her replacements were ineffective. Advantage UConn.