Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Duke women’s basketball overcomes slow start, roars to life in second half to defeat Florida Gulf Coast

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After a 19-point loss to Clemson during the week, Duke had the chance to respond against a talented, tough Florida Gulf Coast ballclub. Needing a statement victory for their identity, the Blue Devils stepped up and delivered. 

Duke defeated the Eagles 82-63, as elite guard play from sophomores Ashlon Jackson and Taina Mair combined for 38 points. The game was scrappy, with the teams putting together 40 total fouls and 31 points from the foul stripe. Amidst the chaos, freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa had her breakout performance of the season, blossoming with 18 points, five rebounds, five steals and one block in 25 minutes.  

“They’re a really good team,” head coach Kara Lawson said following the game. “Today is a step forward for us. I’m proud of how they bounced back.”

It started when Okananwa stripped a cutting Sofia Persson and then found herself at the line after a transition foul. Although Okananwa made only one free throw, a great rebound by Emsbo allowed sophomore guard Emma Koabel to cash in from deep and give Duke (6-4, 0-1 in the ACC) its first lead since the opening quarter. The Boston native then had two consecutive steals that led to points at the line, forcing a Florida Gulf Coast timeout to try to cool off the freshman. 

Her persistence continued, as she executed two more free throws after a collision with Uju Ezeudu. Okanawa then fought through two Eagles to secure the rebound after a missed free throw, and Mair was able to knock down another bucket. Okanawa’s prolific second quarter culminated in splashing a wide open three; her stat line included 10 points, two rebounds and three steals. The Blue Devils converted seven of their last eight field goal attempts, entering the halftime locker room up by five points. 

Okananwa picked up right where she left off in the second half, swooshing an open three before layups from Mair and Koabel forced a timeout. A full-court pass off a missed shot from Emani Jefferson found Mair for two more. And just when a few defensive miscommunications allowed the Eagles (7-4) a possibility to slowly creep back in, Okananwa knocked down a buzzer-beating three to end the third quarter, extending the Duke lead to 65-53.

“She changes the game for us in a positive way every night,” Lawson said of Okananwa. “You see the activity, the rebounding … I mean she had five steals tonight. Her pressure was disruptive on the ball. She’s my most efficient guard … I love coaching Oluchi.”

The fourth quarter proved to be a Lawson defensive scheming success, as Duke forced six opponent turnovers and only 10 total points. The Blue Devils played with a noted fluidity on the offensive end as well, personified by a beautiful behind the back pass from Reigan Richardson found Brown for the easy two that closed the door on the Eagles. 

The game was not always smooth sailing for Duke. In the first quarter the Blue Devils sputtered offensively, as Florida Gulf Coast suffocated the Blue Devils with its high intensity defense, forcing eight turnovers. The Eagles, despite their height disadvantage, attacked the paint in order to score, and found lots of success either converting or drawing a foul. In fact, the visitors did not score a single point from a traditional jump shot. Florida Gulf Coast went 11-for-12 from the free-throw line in the first quarter, and scored the remaining eight of their points from the paint. With Duke’s tall centers Kennedy Brown and Camilla Emsbo in foul trouble early, the Eagles capitalized and took a two-point lead into the second quarter.

“In the first half, I thought [the fouling] was bad, and we’ve got to be more disciplined defensively,’ Lawson said.

Two quick 3-pointers from the Eagles’ Maddie Antenucci extended Florida Gulf Coast’s lead at the start of the second quarter. To make matters more difficult, The Blue Devils converted just one of their first five field goal attempts. Just when it seemed like the game maybe could get away from Duke, a fierce and-one layup from Emsbo began the shift in the energy, before Okananwa took over and single-handedly changed the momentum.

The Blue Devils will hope to capitalize on their momentum as they host Toledo after finals Dec. 20.

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