No. 3 Duke set to play gritty game against No. 2 Notre Dame

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Cheryl Treworgy - TSN via
Cheryl Treworgy – TSN via

DURHAM, N.C. – The third-ranked Duke Blue Devils are ready to host the second-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday.

Coming off a last-second 76-75 win over the Miami Hurricanes in Coral Gables on Thursday, it seems as  though Duke’s scoring output is kicking into another gear.

Senior guard Tricia Liston tied a career high with 29 points against the Hurricanes, center Elizabeth Williams tallied her fifth double-double of the season with 18 points and 12 rebounds, and point guard Alexis Jones added 18 points and six assists despite suffering an eye injury in the game.

“It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was a good game for us,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said.

“We’re excited about Sunday.”

Returning home to Cameron, Duke carries an 11-game winning streak into its second top-three matchup of the season that began following an 83-61 loss suffered at the hands of the top-ranked Connecticut Huskies back on Dec. 17.

With their lone loss to the Huskies not far behind them and facing another team ahead of them in the national rankings, the question remains as to whether the Blue Devils are ready to finally win a big game over an impending top-seeded NCAA Tournament team.

Beating the Fighting Irish would go a long way in showing that the adversity this team has faced since senior point guard Chelsea Gray was lost for the season has prepared it to continue on its quest to seriously contend for a national title.

Duke has played in more closely contested games recently, and has managed to battle through defensive lapses while keeping opponents at a distance long enough to win games.

“We had a great test at Miami, coming back from behind,” Liston said.

“It’s only going to help us in the long run, especially in the Tournament when these great teams that we face come. Having that experience to have those close games under our belt, we’ll feel like we’ve been there before. It will be a little bit more comfortable for us, especially with some of the younger players who haven’t been in many games like that yet.”

Both teams are undefeated in Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) play, and the Blue Devils (21-1, 8-0) will face a Fighting Irish (20-0, 7-0) squad that hasn’t lost all season.

They will tip off as first-time league foes, but the two teams are not strangers to one another.

Notre Dame holds the lead in the all-time series (6-1) with Duke and has won the last four games played between the two, but Sunday’s game will be the first contest played in Durham since Nov. 22, 1997 when the Blue Devils won 80-62.

It will be a rematch of their recent 2013 NCAA Elite Eight matchup and comes at a point in the season when both are currently the top two shooting teams in the nation – holding almost identical shooting percentages – Notre Dame (51.4), Duke (51.1).

Not surprisingly, the Blue Devils and Fighting Irish are also the top two scoring teams in the ACC with Notre Dame (87.3) holding a slight three-point-per-game edge in that category.

In addition to expecting to battle for rebounds and scoring points in the paint, both teams will drop shots from beyond the arc as well.

Why not, they are one and two in the country in three-point field goal percentage too – Notre Dame (1st, 43.9), Duke (2nd, 41.6).

“They move the ball well,” forward Haley Peters said of the Irish.

“They have a lot of good shooters. They’re a good team – they play well together. They have a lot of good guards. It will be a fun game.”

As Liston (18.4 points, 5.7 rebounds) Jones (12.7 points, 4.4 rebounds), and Williams (14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds) are to Duke, so are Jewel Loyd (17.5 points, 6.2 rebounds), Kayla McBride (16.8 points, 5.5 rebounds) and Natalie Achonwa (13.5 points, 8.0 rebounds) to Notre Dame.

Both Liston and Peters pointed out that the Blue Devils have worked hard “to do whatever it takes for the team to win”.

“It will be a full 40 minutes that we will have to focus on the defensive side,” Liston continued.

“There can’t be any ups and downs.”

“It’s a whole team mentality,” Peters added.

“What I think we’ve done well since Chelsea was hurt is we’ve gotten a little more gritty. There’s been some games where we’ve had to fight and that is not pretty and not really flashy, but we’ve gotten the job done. That’s something we needed to get better at and I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

The Blue Devils will also focus on their defensive intensity and rebounding spacing according to McCallie.

Those were two areas that were lacking in the game against Miami.

“They’re some great rebounders for Notre Dame when you think of 11 (Achonwa), 32 (Loyd), and 21 (McBride) – there’s a lot of rebounding going on. Although we did outrebound Miami, I think we need to do a better job in creating space – being more aggressive with that.”

In addition to playing a tighter defensive game with better rebounding, the Blue Devils will work to use the home-court advantage to their favor as well.

Since McCallie took over as head coach in 2007-08, she has guided the Blue Devils to a 93-6 overall record in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

During that stretch, the Blue Devils have posted three undefeated seasons in the famed building (2012-13, 2010-11, 2008-09).

Over the last six years, the Blue Devils have lost only three contests at home and all of those losses were against Connecticut (2010, 2012, 2013).

“It’s a great building – we’ve got great fans,” McCallie said.

“We love it when our fans come out in big numbers – it’s so helpful. There’s a huge difference between 4,000, 5,000 and 8,000, 9,000. There’s a huge, huge difference there in terms of environment. I’m not sure what it will be tomorrow…I just think it’s great tradition, great players going after it and it’s a special building – a special place to play and we really enjoy it. I think too, when we get challenged so much, people do play their best against Duke. You can see that across the board with a lot of teams we play.”