Miami defeated Duke 61-55 Thursday night in the ACC Tournament second round, ending Kara Lawson’s first tournament run and likely Duke’s season. It was a bitter pill to swallow, considering that Duke led most of the game against a team they beat 58-49 earlier in the season, at Miami.
To be honest few observers really expected a deep tournament run. Duke entered the 2022 ACC Women’s Tournament on a slide, five losses in six games, eight in 11 games. Ranked as high as 15th nationally and in the mix to host the first round of the NCAA Tournament in early January, Duke plummeted all the way to the 10th seed in a conference that only gives first-round tournament byes to the top nine seeds.
That sent Duke against 15th-seed Pittsburgh in Wednesday’s opening round. The Panthers were 2-16 in the ACC and entered the tournament on a nine-game losing streak, one of which was a 54-39 setback to Duke at Pitt.
But many of those losses were surprisingly close, five points to Florida State, 11 points to Louisville, two to Syracuse.
Maybe not an easy win after all.
And it sure played out that way. Pitt jumped all over Duke early. Duke led 2-0 and 4-2 before the Panthers went on a 10-0 run to take a 16-6 lead. It was 20-9 after one period. Each team had 16 field-goal attempts but Duke made three of theirs, Pitt made nine.
Duke tried zone, Duke tried man and neither of them worked.
Pitt coach Lance White said his team was “playing free,” while Kara Lawson said her team was overly passive on defense.
Pitt started missing shots. But Duke’s offensive woes continued. The Blue Devils scored three points in the first 4:38 of the second period and fell behind 28-12.
Miela Goodchild stopped the bleeding with a 3-pointer. But Duke still trailed 31-17, with just over three minutes left in the half.
That’s around the time Duke freshman star Shayeann Day-Wilson said Duke started “locking in” on defense. Duke held Pitt scoreless for the final 3:11 of the half and got two free throws by Day-Wilson, a layup by Celeste Taylor and a foul shot by Taylor to close the half with some momentum.
Still, 31-22 is a steep hill to climb.
“We talked about where we can improve, what we can do better in the second half,” Lawson said of the halftime message.
Duke closed to three at 34-31 but fell back by nine at 40-31 and it looked bad.
Duke’s two freshmen led the charge.
It’s no surprise that Day-Wilson was one of them. She’s Duke’s best player after all. She scored six points in about three minutes. But fellow freshman Lee Volker injected a much-needed dose of physicality and toughness.
The 5-11 Volker got her first career start. She dug out a tough defensive rebound, got two steals and knocked down two foul shots as Duke closed the third period on an 8-0 run to make it 40-39 Pitt.
Volker said her defense “really helped us push our offense and build some confidence.”
The two teams went scoreless for the first three minutes of the final period. Duke took a brief lead, fell behind by five, tied the game at 46-46 on a Taylor triple, took a 53-49 lead on a Day-Wilson 3-pointer and a 55-51 lead on an Elizabeth Balogun jumper.
Still Duke staggered to the finish line. Leading 55-52 with five seconds left Lexi Gordon missed two foul shots. But Destiny Strother missed the tying shot at the buzzer and Duke survived and advanced.
Day-Wilson led Duke with 22 points and five assists.
Miami was next, the seventh seed and a much improved team from the won Duke handled back in January in Miami. Led by former Duke star Katie Meier, Miami won five of its last six regular-season games.
This time it was Duke that hit the other team in the face first. The Blue Devils got their transition offense going and knocked down four 3-pointers in the first period. Celeste Taylor had two of those triples and had 10 points after 10 minutes.
Duke led 22-13 after one period against a Miami defense that held Georgia Tech to 39 points and Clemson to 40 points just a few weeks ago.
Miami coach Katie Meier made some changes.
“We had to make a lot of adjustments. We completely blew the personnel scout in the first quarter (on Day-Wilson). The players got frustrated. They were yelling at each other. We adjusted and focused [on her]. I thought the posts did a fantastic job stepping up on the ball screens and making her go to her counter moves. Our guards were hawking her like crazy.”
Miami also started controlling Taylor.
Meier’s response to the question was visual but it basically boiled down to taking away “four to six inches,” crowding Taylor, making her put the ball on the floor and making someone else beat her team.
Taylor had two points in the second period.
Duke only scored nine points in that period. But the defense was solid, holding Miami to 14. Duke still led 31-27 at the half.
Duke had some chances to get some separation in the second half but some old issues came back to haunt them. Post players Onome Akinbode-James and Jade Williams missed all eight of their field goal attempts and two foul shots for the game. Duke was 1-6 from the foul line in the third period. Turnovers continued to mount.
But Elizabeth Balogun came alive and her 3-pointer gave Duke a 40-39 lead going into the final quarter.
Then the wheels came off.
“The game was in the balance there in the fourth quarter,” Lawson said. “You have to credit Miami. I thought they made winning plays down the stretch, made some tough jumpers to separate from us. We didn’t have enough down the stretch.”
The decisive run came after a Balogun jumper put Duke up 46-45, with 5:56 left.
Duke had three empty possessions, two of them turnovers, while Miami scored on four consecutive possessions. Duke trailed 54-46.
What happened during that decisive stretch?
“I’ll just say decision making,” Day-Wilson maintained. “I took a bad shot that led to a fast break for them. It’s all learning. I’ve never been here before. I’ve never been in this position. But I’ve still got to know when to take your shots and I’m learning as I go.”
Taylor added “it goes down the line. It’s not just her thinking she took bad shots. We know what she can do. I think defensively is where we lacked. We weren’t together. We let them do what they do and I think that contributed to that downward slope.”
Duke still got back into it. Taylor hit a 3, Duke got a stop, Balogun converted an offensive rebound and Miami turned it over.
Duke had the ball down 54-51, with just over a minute left.
But Day-Wilson missed a 3 that would have tied it and Miami salted it away from the line.
Day-Wilson ended hitting only 3 of 13 shots from the field and missed all five of her long-range shots.
She took the loss hard.
“It was very frustrating. I think it was just one of those nights when things don’t go your way. I was still trying to stay confident and take the shots I usually take and it’s back in the lab and work on my game.”
Lawson cited Duke’s inability to turn 20 offensive rebounds into more than eight second-chance points. And once Miami started making shots, it limited Duke’s ability to get out and run.
And Duke was playing its second game in two nights against a fresh, deep team.
Taylor ended the game with 19 points, Day-Wilson with 13 and Balogun with 12. But Miami countered with four double-figure scorers, led by Destiny Harden and Lola Pendande with 11 each.
Duke outrebounded Miami 44-29 but turned it over 19 times and shot 38 percent, 11-43 in the final three periods.
The loss drops Duke to 17-13. An NCAA bid is out of the question and Duke has not been very receptive to the WNIT—or the NIT for that matter—in recent decades. Indications are that Duke’s season ended in Greensboro.
So, as Day-Wilson said, back to the lab.