By Peter Koutroumpis
DURHAM, N.C. – A win was necessary and critical to get above the fold this early in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season.
In the end, the 17th ranked Duke Blue Devils (12-4, 1-2) came up with a 69-56 win over the N.C. State Wolfpack (12-5, 1-3) at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday.
Lexie Brown single-handedly carried the load for Duke, putting up a career-high 34 points on 10-of-21 shooting with a milestone-setting seven three-pointers as a part of it.
A double-double and hard-working effort from N.C. State’s Chelsea Nelson saw her finish with 15 points and a career-high 15 rebounds to lead three other double-digit scorers – Kiara Leslie (15), Aislinn Konig (12 points), and Kayla Ealey (10 points).
Duke’s ability to tighten up defensively eventually earned the win over an offensively struggling, yet tenacious Wolfpack squad.
“Obviously just a great battle,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said.
“In the ACC, these teams are all very good. Very athletic, tough competition all the way around. I did really like our first quarter. I thought that was great execution and kind of special to hold a team down in the first quarter like that, but it’s a long game and I know that NC State’s had this habit of being down and coming back as they did against Louisville and that type of thing, so we were just trying to focus on each quarter getting better.”
Duke looked to ride the wave of a seven-game, double-digit scoring pace set by redshirt sophomore Haley Gorecki, and she contributed significantly.
Gorecki did her damage early with three 3s and finished with 13 points and four rebounds and a game-high six assists.
Senior Erin Mathias supported in the post for the Blue Devils with eight points and four rebounds along with freshman Jade Williams who made her first collegiate start and finished with six points and a career-high seven rebounds in 27 minutes.
Both Duke and the N.C. State came into their lone matchup of the season sporting two-game losing slides, and having beaten Duke in the two teams’ last three meetings, the Wolfpack attempted to post a road win in Cameron after consecutive home losses to Louisville and Virginia.
N.C. State even brought a 10-bus armada of 400 program stakeholders to support the team as part of the 4,531 in attendance who collectively increased the energy and noise levels in the building all game.
With second-leading scorer Rebecca Greenwell coming off the bench after missing five of the Blue Devils’ last six games due to knee pain, the Duke lineup throughout the game was an interchangeable blend around Brown.
While Greenwell went scoreless in 13 minutes of play, and with Brown and Gorecki as the lone Duke scorers in double-digits, poor shooting in the first quarter made the largest impact on N.C. State’s ability to get in and stay in the game.
A familiar shortfall, and still significant problem the Wolfpack endured once again.
“Well, again, we dug a hole early, and obviously Duke’s too good of a team to dig that big of a hole with,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said.
“I thought we fought gallantly back to maybe four points, but you use so much energy trying to get back in it that at some point it catches back up with you.”
While the Wolfpack didn’t expect to start the game 0-for-11 from the field and trailing 18-0 through the first seven minutes, Brown knew that she was ready for N.C. State and pointed out that she had a feeling a game like this was possible.
“When I walked in the gym this morning,” Brown stated.
“The last two games have been super frustrating for me. I’ve been in the gym a lot. I’ve talked to Coach P. She gave me a lot of confidence coming into this game. She just wanted me to get back to being confidence in my offense and take the shots and react to the defense a little better. Of course, all the credit in the world to my teammates. They’ve given me all the confidence in the world and keep getting me the ball for me to hit open shots.”
After opening the ACC play at 0-2 for the first time since the 1992-1993 season, suffering road losses, the Blue Devils’ 10th straight win at home this year will hopefully soon translate into success away from campus.
“Just need to bring our energy and continue to do what we’re doing,” Gorecki said.
“We do play a lot better at home. But just bringing everything to our next game and continue to win.”
Duke led 36-25 as an 8-2 run helped the Wolfpack to cut the lead down from 21 points at the end of the first period.
Brown led the Blue Devils with 16 points, shooting 4-of-6 beyond the arc.
Gorecki followed with 10 points while Williams’ four points and five rebounds held the Duke defefense down in the paint.
Leslie led the Wolfpack with nine points, Konig adding six.
Brown’s 34 point was significant.
Equally significant, poor shooting on the part of N.C. State early in the first quarter, an 0-for-11 drought over seven minutes provided a big cushion for Duke to rest on.
Then, leading by only four midway through the third quarter, Duke’s ability to shut down the Wolfpack offense for the remainder of the game and finish with a 13-point margin of victory was most significant.
With both teams focused on defense, turnovers and missed shots only had Duke up 2-0 on Jade Williams layup through the first few minutes of play.
A few quick scoring possessions soon extended the Blue Devils lead to 10-0 at the five-minute mark.
Two free throws from Gorecki, followed by consecutive 3s from Brown and Gorecki outshone an 0-for-7 shooting drought for the Wolfpack.
Greenwell came into the game at the 4:25 mark.
Two-more three-pointers from the tandem of Brown Brown extended the margin to 16 points with 3:02 remaining.
Duke’s press continued to impact State’s ability to generate any offensive pace.
Akela Maize dropped the Wolfpack’s first basket at 2:27.
However, Brown and Gorecki continued to wreak havoc on the Wolfpack defense.
Konig’s first basket, a three, cut the Duke lead to 21-5.
A few free throws added by Gorecki had the Blue Devils carried an 18-point lead into the next period.
Brown led Duke with 11 points, while Gorecki added 10 points as N.C. State couldn’t come close to matching, shooting at a 2-of-14 conversion rate from the field.
Even while missing on consecutive possessions, the Blue Devils worked to hold off the Wolfpack as Konig’s second three-pointer followed by a Leslie layup cut the margin to 13 points, 25-12, with 6:49 to play.
Another two baskets from Duke countered by two free throws from Nelson made it a 15-point game with under five to play.
State continued to post points intermittently and increased its passing tempo to work around a longer Blue Devils defensive lineup with Mathias and Bego Faz Davalos in the paint.
Akela Maize, Nelson, and Leslie dropped shots and cut the Duke lead to 10 points, 33-23, with 1:20 remaining.
With the last shot following a Leslie lay-up, Brown dropped another three-bomb to put the Blue Devils ahead 36-25 at the half.
Play got more physical in the lane and under the basket as Maize battled with Mathias on numerous occasions for rebounds.
The Wolfpack’s perimeter game finally started to convert as an 11-2 run made it a four-point game, with Duke holding on 40-36 at the 4:44 mark.
A three and layup from Gorecki and Mathias extended the Blue Devils lead to nine.
The battle continued as both teams posted points from the field and free throw line.
Brown continued to be a one-person wrecking ball, pulling down rebounds and dropping shots, and helping Duke to extend its advantage back up to double-digits.
With a strong drive to the basket at the buzzer from Jayda Adams that capped off a 9-0 run, the Blue Devils’ lead stood at 55-40.
N.C. State continued to keep up with Brown and Gorecki, but had trouble scoring, falling behind by another three points, trailing 60-42.
Both teams continued to match scores within 16 points separating them with five minutes remaining.
Mathias fouled out at 4:45 and following two free throws from Nelson, the Wolfpack tried to spark its offense with a three-pointer from Leslie.
A turnover by Greenwell put the ball back in N.C. State’s hands, and Nelson cut the Duke lead to 10, 63-53, with 3:55 to play.
Matching bombs beyond the arc from Brown and Ealey kept the gap at 10.
The Blue Devils worked the shot clock on each possession, and missed shots from N.C. State couldn’t cut the margin more.
A 12-5 run finished the game in Duke’s favor.
Peter Koutroumpis, 401-323-8960, @pksport