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Duke Falls To #1 South Carolina In Cameron

But the Blue Devils made them earn it.

South Carolina v Duke
DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 15: Jade Williams #25 of the Duke Blue Devils battles for a rebound against Aliyah Boston #4 and Victaria Saxton #5 of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 15, 2021 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

South Carolina used a physical, suffocating defense and a 17-0 first-period run to hand the Duke women their first defeat Wednesday night, 55-46. The game both confirmed South Carolina’s status as the team to beat come March, while showing how far Kara Lawson’s Duke team has come and how much promise it has for the future.

Duke scored first on a 3-pointer by Elizabeth Balogun. Then pretty much anything that could go wrong to a basketball team went wrong to Duke.

South Carolina deserves a lot of credit for that, of course. But not all of it.

South Carolina went on a 17-0 run. Star center Aliyah Boston scored seven of those points, hitting a 3 and dominating Duke inside with her rare combination of physicality and skill.

Boston described that early run.

“I think it all started on the defensive end. We tried to make it really hard for them to score and with that we gave them one shot to score and then offensive rebounding giving us more chances to score.”

Duke’s star Celeste Taylor said some of the wounds were self-inflicted.

“They’re a great team, so kudos to them. But we had great shots as a team. Everyone had open looks, just all-around great shots but they just weren’t falling.”

“I liked the shots we got,” Lawson said. “I thought we got great looks. We just didn’t knock them down.”

Duke missed 10 straight shots, while adding four turnovers to the mix during this stretch

Duke scored the final four points of the first period but still trailed 17-7 after one.

It didn’t get any better, not soon anyway. Duke couldn’t make shots, couldn’t get offensive rebounds, couldn’t get to the line, just couldn’t figure out a way to get the ball in the basket.

It was 32-16 at the half.

Despite the offensive woes, Duke’s defense kept them in contact. Duke has played mostly man-to-man this season but went zone against South Carolina.

“We already had the zone in,” Kara Lawson said, adding that they planned to use it against South Carolina’s size for some time.

Taylor said Duke “locked in on what we were told to do and just continued to follow through. We played a pretty good game defensively.”

Duke forced 17 turnovers and held South Carolina to 35 percent shooting.

But they just couldn’t keep South Carolina off their offensive boards.

“They were physically dominant in the paint,” Lawson said. “I thought we played pretty good first-shot defense tonight but it was offensive rebounds and second-chance points that proved to be too much. Their relentless approach to the glass on the offensive end gave us a lot of problems and I thought that was the difference in the game.”

South Carolina outrebounded Duke 44-26, with a 17 to 4 advantage in second-chance points. Boston ended with 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks.

But Duke kept fighting, kept competing, kept chipping away. Earlier this season Lawson said that she didn’t expect to win every game but she expected to compete in every game.

“I thought all of our players played with great effort,” Lawson said, “and that’s what you hope for in a game like this. I love my group. When you go down 16 and you only have 16 points at the half, there’s a lot of teams that would come out of the locker room and think the game is over. We didn’t do that. We kept fighting and made some runs at them.”

Duke cut the lead to 10 at 34-24 but had two empty possessions with a chance to cut the lead to single digits. Taylor hit a 3 to make it 41-31 and Lee Volker missed an open 3 at the end of the third quarter that would have cut the deficit to eight.

It was 42-31 after three.

Dawn Staley acknowledged that Duke had her team rattled in the second half.

“I think we just started over-thinking and not playing simple basketball. I think we were mentally fatigued. I thought mentally after that first quarter we thought smooth sailing and took our foot off the gas and we learned a lesson.”

But Duke could never get over the hump. Shayeann Day-Wilson and Taylor scored early in the fourth and it was 42-35 and Cameron was rocking. Lexi Gordon got a steal and Day-Wilson had a good look at a 3 that would have cut the deficit to four points.

She missed and Duke never got that close again.

Day-Wilson was Duke’s only double-digit scorer, fearlessly throwing her 5-6 body at South Carolina’s physical defenders and coming away with 17 points.

“She looked to attack,” Lawson said. “She continues to keep improving her command, not just of her game but command the whole team, not just her space.”

So a first loss, a loss with too many turnovers (19), 34 percent shooting, minus 18 on the boards and still a hard-fought loss to the nation’s top team.

ACC play starts this weekend and Lawson says her team still needs to improve to navigate the conference waters. But she says she loves her team, loves their fire and their desire to learn from coaching and get better.

“I think our staff and our players understood that this would be a really good game for us going into conference play to see where we stood and how we could keep getting better.”