Kara Lawson came into her first ACC/Big Ten Challenge with a .900 career winning percentage at Duke.
Of course, that’s misleading. It’s a pretty small sample size, 10 games to be exact. And only one of those nine wins was against a major-college program, a neutral-site win over Alabama a couple of weeks ago. Programs like Dayton and Troy are very good mid-major programs but ACC coaches don’t earn their stripes beating A-10 programs.
What was lacking on her resume was a signature win.
Enter the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa came to Cameron undefeated and ranked ninth in the AP poll. Their sophomore wing Caitlin Clark is a short-list national player-of-the-year candidate. Clark led the NCAA with 26.6 points per game last year, as a freshman.
But it hasn’t all been smooth-sailing for Iowa this season. A rash of Covid cases in the program caused the cancellation of three games, including a trip to Cancun. Their most recent game was on November 17. Their four wins were over New Hampshire, Samford, Northern Iowa and Southern.
So, they had also had something to prove.
But it was Duke that won the something-to-prove battle, along with the rebounding battle and the making 3-pointers battle.
All of which led to Duke’s convincing 79-64 win, the first time an unranked team has beaten a top-10 team this season, after an 0-47 start.
Of course, Duke shouldn’t be unranked the next time the polls come out.
Both teams were tight in the beginning. Iowa scored the first four points and led 8-2, with all 8 points coming from their talented post player Monika Czinano.
“I think we were really excited,” Lawson said about the shaky start. “We played a little bit frantic. What changed for us is we got a little more settled and the ball started going in.”
Duke took its first lead at 10-8 on a Shayeann Day-Wilson 3-pointer.
Iowa tied it at 10, 12 and 14 but never again regained the lead.
Duke led 20-16 after one, shooting 9 for 16. But Duke had seven turnovers, Iowa five. Some nerves but also some good defense on both sides of the ball.
And Clark just couldn’t get going. She played an outstanding all-around game, with 9 rebounds, 8 assists and a steal and only turned it over twice, and she had the ball in her hands a lot.
But she couldn’t buy a basket from downtown. She only had 4 points at the half, shooting 2 of 9 from the field. Iowa missed all six of its 3-point attempts in the opening half, four of those misses by Clark.
“I wouldn’t say we did anything special, specifically for her,” Lawson said. “Our players just knew the type of threat she was and knew her tendencies and just tried to do the best job that they could. She missed some shots tonight she normally makes. She’s a really good player. But I thought her shots were challenged and that’s what we were hoping for.”
And Duke’s pressure defense ended up forcing 18 Iowa turnovers, which they converted into 19 points.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Duke’s defense,” veteran Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said,” but this is the first time we’ve really seen pressure defense all year. We really hadn’t seen that before. Certainly those games we missed out on would have helped prepare us for this situation.”
Duke gradually extended its lead in the second period. The biggest first-half lead was at 34-24. Duke had a chance for a five-point possession after an intentional foul call on Clark but came up empty, as Lexi Gordon missed both freebies. But Gordon scored on a layup at the buzzer and Duke took a 36-28 lead into halftime.
Day-Wilson lead the Blue Devils with 10 at half, Taylor with 6, Duke had a 20-12 advantage on boards but committed 12 turnovers to Iowa’s 11.
Iowa scored first after intermission, Czinano again. But Duke responded with an 8-0 run.
Clark finally got it going offensively, getting downhill in transition and off the half-court and getting inside for layups. But Iowa was playing from behind and Duke had several advantages.
One was on the boards. Duke outrebounded Iowa 45-35, with their three-headed post combo of Jade Williams (8), Onome Akinbode-James (3) and Amaya Finklea-Guity (4) combining for 15 rebounds.
“We did not box out well at all,” Bluder lamented. “We were turning but not finding a body. That definitely hurt us.”
“The rebounding, we talked about as a group,” Lawson added. “It’s important that everybody does it. It’s not just on our post players. They had a really hard challenge tonight to keep 25 [Czinano] off the glass, so our guards had to come in and do that.”
Lots of Blue Devils contributed in lots of ways but when Duke needed a big basket, it seemed like Day-Wilson or Celeste Taylor answered the call.
Day-Wilson hit 4 of 7 from beyond the arc on a night when everyone else combined for 5 for 23.
“Having a lot of confidence,” the precocious freshman said. “I’ve been practicing on my 3-point shot and I’m getting the results I want.”
Lawson praised Day-Wilson’s versatility, including her defense on Clark.
“We’re just excited she keeps growing and keeps showing progress.”
The biggest of Day-Wilson’s baskets may have been a 3-pointer with two minutes left in the third that quelled an Iowa mini-run and put the lead back to 15, at 55-40.
Duke led 57-44 after three.
Iowa got as close as 11 several times in the fourth. Day-Wilson hit a 3 to make it 68-54, with 3:49 left and Williams made two foul shots to make it 70-59, with 72-59, with 1:31 left. Iowa closed to 10 but they were out of time.
And they didn’t have Celeste Taylor. The transfer from Texas continued to stuff the stat sheet, 17 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks. And she did as much as anyone to frustrate Clark into a 9 for 27 (1 for 13 on 3s) shooting nightmare.
“We just played defense, played our principles and did what we had to do to stop her. It was definitely a team effort. It was not one person because we do play together on the defensive end very well.”
Taylor had six rebounds in the final period. And the Duke team that struggled so much from the line against Troy knocked down 9 of 12 from the line in the fourth, quelling any hopes of an Iowa comeback. Duke said they would hit the gym and practice foul shooting after going 10 for 25 against Troy and they kept that promise.
“Our expectation is to compete with everybody we play,” Lawson summed up. “I don’t know if we’ll beat everybody we play but the expectation is to compete. That’s just our program. That’s who we are.”