DURHAM, N.C. – The 2nd-ranked Duke Blue Devils suffered their first loss of the season, an 83-61 result, to the top-ranked Connecticut Huskies in front of a sold out crowd of 9,314 at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday.
Even with four players finishing with double-digit scoring totals – Chelsea Gray (13 points, 4 rebounds), Haley Peters (11 points, 8 rebounds), Tricia Liston (10 points, 3 rebounds), Alexis Jones (10 points, 4 rebounds) – Duke didn’t play as aggressively as it needed to make a serious run at the Huskies.
The only difference with the 13th matchup between these two teams was that it started the same way it’s usually ended.
Instead of staying close during the first half, the Blue Devils put up a 31-percent shooting performance that wasn’t close to the Huskies’ 55 percent, and it resulted in them not taking the important step of beating the defending champions.
By halftime, Connecticut held a 15-point cushion to work with – leading 41-26.
“There were lapses in our intensity and our energy throughout the game,” Duke forward Haley Peters said afterwards.
“We do that in other games, but we can get away with it in those games. We haven’t pushed each other enough in that; in not letting that happen no matter who we’re playing. When you do that against this team (Connecticut), you’re going to put yourself in a hole.”
It all started fine with both teams battling back and forth with Connecticut leading 12-11 during the first five minutes of play.
However, for the next seven minutes, led by Breana Stewart (24 points, 11 rebounds), the Huskies put together a 16-1 run that more or less put the game out of reach quickly.
“We talk about this a lot,” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said.
“We talk about you can’t necessarily win a game in five minutes, but you can lose a game in five minutes if you don’t do certain things…We’re not going to go five minutes, generally speaking, without scoring. But if we can score enough points in those six minutes, and you don’t, it’s going to be hard to catch up. It’s nothing that we do defensively sometimes. It’s just that it’s not as easy to make jump shots when you’re down 14 as when you’re up 12.”
Stewart was simply too much for Duke to contain as she dominated the offense for UConn from the opening tip as she dropped 15 points while the Blue Devils’ hesitancy to pass, drive, or shoot made it easy for the Huskies to defend.
When asked what she saw in the Duke defense that allowed her to score half of the attempts she made (6-12) during the first half, Stewart said, “I was just being aggressive.”
“I wanted to be aggressive on offense. Coach is always telling me to keep moving and there were times tonight where it stopped, but if you keep moving it’s hard for defenses to guard you and you know if their hands are down, you’re gonna’ shoot it.”
While trying to contain Stewart, Duke countered by spreading around its offense as Chelsea Gray (7 points), Elizabeth Williams (5 points), and Haley Peters worked to keep pace with the Huskies.
But it was not enough.
“Horrible shot selection, chucking up shots and them converting and us not getting back on defense,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said.
“We started the game the way we should have started the game, which was attacking and being patient on offense. We had some nice paint scores and some interior things going on. We broke out of that and that’s a very bad mistake to make against a very good transition team, and so we fueled their transition and that’s disturbing.”
With their backs against the wall, the Blue Devils pushed harder during the second half and got tangible results, shooting 16-of-30 from the field.
While Stewart’s hot hand cooled during the second half, it was Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (21 points) who picked up after her with a 5-of-8 success rate beyond the arc that kept Connecticut on pace with Duke.
After falling behind by as many as 20 points, trailing 52-32 with 16:27 to play, Duke outscored Connecticut 20-13 led by Gray’s drives to the hoop and pulled within 13 with eight minutes to play.
From there, UConn put together another big 14-point run that essentially shut down any hope that the Blue Devils had of doing something historic and heroic in their building.
They were handed their first loss of the season which also snapped a 24-game winning streak in Cameron.
The storyline of the favorite and the underdog between these two teams has been written over and over again and unfortunately with the same ending for Duke.
UConn’s dominance over the Blue Devils now sits at a 10-3 record, includes seven straight wins and an average winning margin of 25+ points.
However, for McCallie, she will now have her team focus on the bigger picture and how to use the loss as a valuable learning experience.
“It’s great lessons,” McCallie said.
“We have to own up. Own up and grow and change and use this…I know people like to make a big deal about it because it’s No. 1 and No. 2 and all that. I think the bigger deal is the Final Four. That’s the biggest deal and trying to pursue a national championship at that level, and this helps us in our journey to get better and figure things out.”