DURHAM, N.C. – The ninth-ranked Duke Blue Devils had the chance to beat the top team in the country, but they ended up losing 51-50 in the dying seconds of their game against the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday.
Rebecca Greenwell’s 12 points led the Blue Devils offense while Azura Stevens’ 12 rebounds led the defense.
Though no other Blue Devils scored in double-digits, eight different players contributed points and rebounds against a talented South Carolina squad.
Asia Dozier and A’ja Wilson led the Gamecocks with 11 and 10 points respectively, with Wilson dropping the winning basket with 1.8 seconds remaining.
It was not a high-scoring affair by any stretch as both teams combined for 101 total points, and just 38 following the opening half – both the lowest scoring totals for each team this season.
“That was an interesting basketball game; obviously very defensive and very physical,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said.
“It felt very much like an NCAA game. It wasn’t the national championship, but it was definitely like an NCAA game. I thought it was a great game. I thought both teams worked really hard. I was really proud of our team’s effort and our fight.”
Following successive shortfalls to ranked teams – a 60-54 loss to No. 12 Nebraska on Wednesday and a 63-59 loss to No. 7 Texas A&M last Sunday – the Blue Devils sought to redeem themselves against the Gamecocks.
Duke suffered those losses without three-time All-America Elizabeth Williams who missed both games due to a leg injury suffered in a 72-42 win over Stony Brook on Nov. 23.
Coming into the game leading the country in rebounding margin, the Blue Devils needed to maintain their work off the glass in order to stay close with the Gamecocks.
And they did.
South Carolina took the early 2-0 lead following a charging call on Williams during Duke’s first possession.
From there, each team began to trade baskets for the first 10 minutes of play as Greenwell opened the scoring for Duke.
Stevens dropped a three to put Duke ahead 5-2.
Greenwell extended the lead to five points, after she came off a high post screen set by Williams.
Defensively, Williams and Stevens were a force early on – blocking shots and rebounding effectively and with authority.
As South Carolina worked the ball inside Duke’s zone, Williams came up with back-to-back blocks – including an emphatic denial on Elem Ibiam (8 points, 5 rebounds) to keep Duke ahead 9-6, and energizing the crowd.
There was no absence of emotion up to that point as South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley was assessed a technical foul at 12:09 after Greenwell stole the ball and fed Johnson for a breakaway layup.
With the extra two shots, Greenwell went to the line and extended the lead to 13-7.
At that point, Duke was shooting 50 percent compared to South Carolina’s 19-percent conversion rate.
Even when the Blue Devils experienced difficulty in converting easy baskets, they relied on their rebounding ability to maintain ball possession.
However, Duke then hit a stretch when it went 0-for-8 and didn’t take full advantage of three South Carolina turnovers.
The Gamecocks began to gain momentum around the midpoint of the opening half and pulled to within two – trailing 13-11.
Not a high-scoring affair, but a physical one.
“We knew we had to play through it, we were dealing with a taller team which does not happen very often,” Gamecocks forward Aleighsa Welch said.
The intense Welch finished the game with eight points, eight rebounds, and two blocks.
“We emphasized driving to the basket, rebounding and not worrying about if our shot got blocked. I think when we stuck to that, it opened up a lot of other things. We got some drives and kicks and stuck to our game plan.”
Mercedes Riggs scored her first and only points of the game, a three that extended the Blue Devils’ lead to 16-11 with nine minutes remaining in the half.
Both teams continued to battle in the paint and went scoreless for a five-and-a-half-minute stretch.
Staley called a timeout with five minutes remaining and attempted to pull South Carolina out of its scoring drought.
The Gamecocks put together a backdoor-cut play that set Wilson up to score, but she didn’t.
Neither did Duke as Chidom’s attempt at a layup at the other end got stuck between the rim and the backboard – a sight seen more often in pick-up games and rarely during a top-10 featured matchup.
The optics said it all – it was that type of game.
South Carolina finally ended the drought as Tiffany Mitchell (7 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists) dropped a midrange jumper to bring the margin of difference to three – 16-13 at 3:33.
Baskets remained hard to come by for the remainder of the half as both teams finished the first 20 minutes with the lowest shooting percentage each had posted in a half all season.
With 1:48 to go, Johnson dropped two free throws to extend the Duke lead back to five.
Welch scored a tough jumper with Williams fronting her and the Duke lead was back to three and Johnson went to the line again.
She dropped the first and missed the second.
Wilson was fouled and went to the line to pull the Gamecocks to with two with under a minute to play.
A few steals and dribbles later, Greenwell drove to the hoop and extended the Duke lead to 21-17 as the final horn for halftime sounded.
“A lot of people like to make a big deal about the end of the game,” McCallie said.
“I’ll make a big deal of how we started the second half. They went on a 7-0 run and that is uncalled for. We did not come out with the right defensive intensity. We did a great job coming back, great job taking the lead, and a great job in many areas, but we have got to become a 40-minute defensive team. We’re just not quite there yet.”
McCallie’s postgame comments summed up Duke’s shortfall during the final 20 minutes.
The Blue Devils lost the battle in the paint, getting outscored 22-14 during the second half.
Though they outrebounded the Gamecocks 44-36 on the offensive and defensive boards, it was the finish or lack of it in and around the basket that ultimately made the difference in how the game ended.
Dozier hit a three to pull South Carolina within one early, and started a 7-0 run that Ibiam and Welch contributed to that soon gave the visitors a 24-21 lead.
Duke’s Sierra Calhoun (8 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists) found a soft spot and drove to the basket for a layup and cut the Gamecocks lead back down to one.
Another block by Williams sent Duke the other way, but a miss gave South Carolina the opportunity to go the other way and lay it up to extend the lead up to 26-23.
Dozier hit another three at 15:45 to push the Gamecocks lead to six, their largest of the game up to that point.
A steal then turned into an easy layup for Greenwell who made it a four-point game.
Williams was called for her fourth foul on an offensive rebound with 13 minutes remaining and McCallie was forced to sit her.
South Carolina continued to add to its margin over Duke, leading 32-25.
Johnson kept the score close with two free throws after a follow-through on a block from Wilson.
A bank shot off the glass from Chidom brought Duke back to within three, trailing 32-29.
Both teams then put together the game’s most consistent scoring stretch for the next five minutes.
Alaina Coates (8 points, 10 rebounds) made her biggest impact for the Gamecocks, scoring valuable layups which Johnson worked to offset with a bank shot while Calhoun hit a three to cut the Gamecocks lead back down to two – 36-34 with 10 minutes to play.
Chidom then drove straight at and through Wilson and dropped a layup to tie the score 36-36.
The crowd of 6,004 was fully engaged at that point – a group that bled garnet as much as it did blue.
Both teams continued to work in the paint and matched baskets.
Calhoun gave Duke a 41-40 lead after a broken play saw Johnson retrieve the rebound on a save from Chidom.
A running jumper from Chidom off the glass then came with a foul and Duke led 43-40 with 6:33 to go.
Chidom missed the free throw, but made up for it with strong defensive play on the next South Carolina shot attempt, and came up with the ball to push the play the other way.
A steal from Khadijah Session, one of four she claimed throughout the game, resulted in a shot and a rebound that Wilson cleaned up.
Both teams were separated by a point – 44-43 in the Gamecocks favor with five minutes to play.
Williams then put up a prayer shot while stumbling to give Duke the lead again.
Williams followed that up by taking a charge on the next Gamecocks possession, and Stevens pushed the lead to three – 47-44.
A steal from Greenwell then resulted in Williams getting fouled and she went to the line – hitting the first, but missing the second.
48-44 – advantage Duke.
Both teams continued to fight for the opportunity to work inside the paint and drew fouls to go to the line.
Another missed shot from South Carolina eventually gave Duke the ball with 58 seconds to play and holding on to a two-point lead.
McCallie called a timeout to set up the Blue Devils’ inbounds play.
The ball eventually made it into Greenwell’s hands and she was fouled.
She scored both free throws and Duke held a 50-46 lead with 40 seconds to play.
Staley called a timeout for South Carolina.
Confusion on the Gamecocks’ inbounds burned six seconds off the clock and Staley called another timeout.
Wilson was subbed into the game after sitting on the bench for two minutes with four fouls.
She got the ball and eventually it made it out to the perimeter.
Duke lengthened its defense beyond the arc, but Mitchell managed to fake and dodge Johnson to drop a three and pulled the Gamecocks to within one.
The Blue Devils had the ball and the lead with 18 seconds remaining.
On the end line, a pass from Johnson to Stevens then found its way into Greenwell’s hands.
However, the Gamecocks turned it over, literally taking the ball out of her hands, and Session ended up with it.
“I looked up and was expecting…I thought I was going to throw it ahead to E (Williams), but then two people trapped me, and I should have called a time-out,” Greenwell said.
Duke did eventually call a timeout, but with the Gamecocks in possession of the ball with 11 seconds remaining and sill trailing 50-49.
After the inbounds, Mitchell put up the intended winning shot, but it didn’t go in.
Wilson won the rebound and dropped ‘the shot’ herself as the noise level increased ten-fold from the South Carolina contingent on hand.
“We drew the play, but we went away from it because it wasn’t there so had to counter act,” Wilson said.
“I saw Tiffany (Mitchell) trying to get the ball up. She attacked the basket and time was running out, and we were really emphasizing rebounding. I knew what ever shot went up I was going to have to crash the boards. When she went in and missed it, it kind of just fell into my hands and I put it back up.”
With less than two seconds remaining, Johnson launched the ball from the backcourt, but the desperation shot attempt missed short and to the right as the final buzzer sounded.
The Blue Devils’ attempt to upset the No. 1 Gamecocks was literally ripped from their hands.
“I think there are probably some pretty good lessons there for us, overall,” McCallie said.
“Soak it in. Learn, grow, get better. This is December. We’re preparing for March. Take every lesson possible. Know who you are and how good we can be when we really play together or really play great defense. There are a lot of great messages. This is a long season. I feel very proud of how our team fought. It was just a great basketball game. And it could’ve gone either way. You think about that three-point shot that one gal shot from 9,000 feet out. That was impressive. There’s some lucky play on either end, but the bottom line is that it’s how you play the duration. We’re going to start on the start of that second half. No way are you coming out of the locker room soft. No way.”
Notes: After Williams missed two games due to an ankle injury, she posted a strong defensive game with her five blocks, four of which came in the opening half alone… Guard Mercedes Riggs, a Juco transfer from Salt Lake CC, got her first start at Duke in place of Ka’lia Johnson who was held from starting for disciplinary reasons according to McCallie…It didn’t look as though Wilson would return to the game as she was sitting on the bench with four personal fouls while South Carolina trailed by four with 2:48 to play…Wilson was then subbed in with 38 seconds remaining with the Gamecocks still trailing 50-46…Wilson had an ice bag wrapped around her left hand during the postgame press conference.