DURHAM, N.C. – It was only the first game of the season, but a 93-57 win over High Point on Tuesday showed those watching in Cameron Indoor Stadium that the Duke Blue Devils have a different look this season.
Firstly, there’s a deeper bench of talent that is healthier than in recent years.
They’ve returned 95% of their scoring, a significant point that was punctuated with double-digit scoring from the Blue Devils starting five against the Panthers – Leaonna Odom – 19, Haley Gorecki – 15, Jade Williams – 12, Onome Akinbode-James – 10 and Miela Goodchild – 10.
It was the effort head coach Joanne P. McCallie was looking for to start the season which included a milestone effort from Odom who surpassed the 1000-point career mark.
“Definitely, we’re faster; we’re a faster team,” McCallie said.
“When the outlet gets up fast to Neah (Leaonna Odom), that’s going to be speed from foul line to foul line, as well as some of our other guards. There’s no question we can play with speed. It will be a faster game, a fun game, and more people doing what they can do.”
In addition to presenting the tallest team in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) at an average height of 6-1, the availability of injury-recovered guards Kyra Lambert and Mikayla Boykin increases the talent quotient that head coach Joanne P. McCallie has to work with.
Lambert returned to the court for the first time since Mar. 18, 2017 and scripted a five-point, one-rebound, one-assist and three-steal stat line against High Point.
She announced her return in dramatic fashion when she came into the game at the 2:51 mark of the opening quarter and dropped a 60-foot buzzer beating 3-pointer.
Add in freshmen Jada Claude, Jaida Patrick, and Azana Baines into the mix and this lineup has already shown high-scoring dividends in the team’s play after an inter-squad Blue-White scrimmage, and 91-59 exhibition win over Alaska Anchorage.
Even though there are still individuals on the team’s injured list including Jayda Adams and newcomer Jennifer Ezeh, when McCallie looks down the bench, she still has five-deep to platoon in, including role and utility players Uchenna Nwoke and Emily Schubert.
McCallie has played them all at both ends of the court and in different offensive and defensive sets, including a four-out, one-in rotation.
“Well, again, I think this team’s commitment to the summer, and great opportunities that we’ve had in the past, great lessons learned, we were extremely competitive last year as well,” McCallie said following the program’s 53rd consecutive home-opening win.
“We’re just a hungry team. We’ve been right there with so many opportunities and we’re just taking them one at a time. Each game is a little bit of a story, and I’m glad that Kyra could really add to our story in this game. We’ve got players playing together, caring about each other. We’ve got players who want to see other players do well. You know, those intangibles are more than the talent piece. We’ve got some excellent talent; you can see it out there with Z (Baines), JP (Patrick), and JC (Claude), who are bringing a lot to the table as newcomers, but in the same sense, it’s the whole incorporation of everybody. The leadership, with Neah and Haley, Kyra of course, and Emily. Emily doesn’t play a lot of minutes, but she gives us superb leadership and she understands what’s going on. It’s kind of a confluence—it’s all of those things coming together. We’re excited. We want every game to be its own story, to really attack every game with a great purpose, and I think we did.”
Opposing teams will focus on Odom and Gorecki first from the outside, ready to defend their drives to the basket, to finish or to dish out to Goodchild on the perimeter or inside to Williams or Akinbode- James.
Points in the paint are critical to Duke’s success and will increase pressure for the Blue Devils’ post players to finish on first attempts and not miss easy layups or putbacks.
That has been an area of concern since the departure of WNBA forward Elizabeth Williams.
Duke has not possessed a solid post presence since she graduated in 2015.
Though McCallie has inserted various players to fill the void, it has been challenging for Duke to play the inside game and produce against Top-25 opposition, particularly in the postseason.
The Blue Devils have missed qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in two of the last four seasons, not participating in the 2016 and 2019 postseason competitions.
In ACC play, those years produced the team’s lowest conference records, 8-8 in ’16 and hit rock bottom last season with a 6-10 finish.
A second-round exit in the league tournament was the lowest ever for the program since a first-round exit in 1993.
Fortunately, backcourt play was the binding element for the Blue Devils to not fall as far as some programs would have following 2016.
Particularly so after a Duke Athletics internal investigation into McCallie’s conduct put into question her leadership of the program.
It all came about after prominent players like Azura Stevens and Angela Salvadores left while a carousel of assistant coaches leaving also picked up speed.
The ride was a relatively fast one and ended with the three-time ACC Coach of the Year continuing in her position.
With McCallie fully supported to continue leading the program, current WNBA guard Lexi Brown and Rebecca Greenwell helped patch together successful 2017 and 2018 Duke squads that produced 28-6 and 24-9 records, respectively.
While Odom and Gorecki meandered their way through the early portions of their collegiate careers, and, led by the two upperclassmen, Duke produced second-round and Sweet 16 finishes to show for it.
Gorecki returned sooner from hip injuries suffered in her first few seasons (2016 and 2017), but Lambert’s rehab from multiple knee surgeries and extensive recovery time couldn’t reinforce the Blue Devils lineup more last season.
A 15-15 finish overall was the worst record a team coached by McCallie owned during her tenure, but it was a season during which Gorecki, Odom, and Williams were encouraged to thrive.
Taking pressure off Goodchild to adjust to NCAA backcourt play, Gorecki carried the load and earned a 1st Team All-ACC selection while producing one of the best individual seasons in program history averaging 17.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.6 steals per game.
Working from the outside in, Odom supported that effort starting 29-of-30 games and averaged 13.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.6 steals.
Up front, McCallie leaned on Williams to pick up her production in the paint, an effort that yielded 8.4 points and 5.4 rebounds.
Akinbode-James adjusted to the collegiate game, starting 22 games and helped where she could with 5.4 points and four rebounds per game.
Williams’ most significant and productive performance came late in the season with a double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds) finish to end the regular season with 62-47 win over rival North Carolina and evened the team’s regular season record at 14-14.
Following a 51-41 loss to Florida State in the second round of the ACC Tournament, McCallie set the table for her returning players during the postgame presser:
“They have to take the experience — obviously it’s lessons learned, things to be worked on, playing off ball, cuts to get open, playing off the bounce. It’s not always a game of catch-and-shoot. It’s a different game. You’ve got to be able to play off the bounce. That’s one of the things I appreciate so much about Haley’s game. She’ll catch and shoot, but she’ll play off the bounce. That’s one of the reasons why she was a leader and attacking in that game. She certainly drew excellent defense. But those are skill sets that need to be developed and given over time of experience. So Onome learning, Miela learning as well, Jade as well.”
Though too early to tell, the initial results have shown that each player has made a commitment to get better.
They all look leaner and act more confident – more mature as a team.
Their looks of determination to not only compete but excel and improve upon last season backed up Gorecki’s comments before the 2019-2020 season started.
“I wouldn’t be here, to this point without Coach P,” Gorecki said.
“She’s taught me a lot, not even on the court, but off the court. My development has grown, giving credit to all the people who have worked with me through the injuries – the trainers, the staff, the coaches, my teammates. It’s been a good experience. Being my last year, this group has been great. I think bringing the chemistry that we had last year is the one big thing I can take away from that year. This year we have the majority of team coming back which has been great. Just seeing everyone work from the beginning of the summer. A few freshmen have been here throughout the summer and seeing their growth has been incredible. Honestly, I can’t think of a different word. It’s just everyone buying into the process and just knowing what our goals are for the season.”
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