Tonight the No. 5 Blue Devils (17-2) host No. 3 Connecticut (19-2), which has established itself as the nation’s premier women’s program ever since coach Geno Auriemma got it up to speed.
Duke has been consistently in or near the Top 10 during Joanne P. McCallie’s tenure, but she hasn’t yet taken the Blue Devils to a Final Four.
This game could have a big effect on that, as a Blue Devil victory would put them on the inside track for the No. 1 seed in the Raleigh Regional. And the Blue Devils will get help from the largest home crowd of the season as Cameron is almost sold out.
But recent history is not on Duke’s side, as UConn has won four straight in the series and the last three by at least 33 points including a couple of very tough nights for the Blue Devils last season.
Duke has won 34 straight home games, with the last loss that 81-48 shellacking by the Huskies here two years ago.
The good news for Duke is that this time the Blue Devils aren’t humiliated. But the bad news is their shooting percentage, an icy 24.6, in a 61-45 loss before a noisy 8,033.
Duke leads a couple of times in the early going, but a three-point play from Tiffany Hayes at 15:49 gives the visitors a 9-8 advantage they’ll never relinquish.
Still it’s only 31-23 at halftime, the last points coming on a Richa Jackson jumper at 1:05.
But a long cold spell is coming for the home team. Elizabeth Williams’ layup with 17:55 to go cuts the UConn lead to 34-27 — and that’s the last field goal for Duke until a Haley Peters 3-pointer with 6:44 to go makes it 50-36.
Maybe it’s a bit of a moral victory for Duke that the Huskies are having to just run clock after the final media timeout.
Bria Hartley leads the Huskies with 15 points, followed by Caroline Doty with 11 and Stefanie Dolson with 10 — never missing a shot in a foul-plagued 13 minutes. Kiah Stokes has four points to go with game highs of 12 rebounds and five blocks.
Chelsea Gray finishes with 13 points including a trio of 3-pointers, seven rebounds, six assists and six steals for Duke. Jackson chips in 11 points and Williams 10. But Duke gets zero points off the bench.
The Huskies shoot 45.1 percent and outrebound the Blue Devils 44-38, although they are limited to seven offensive rebounds. UConn also turns the ball over 21 times to 15 for the Blue Devils.
They said it …
McCallie: “Obviously it was just a really defensive, physical basketball game. It was a great battle and a great opportunity for us. We took a lot of shots, (but) we’re going to learn a valuable lesson when we watch on film as we don’t move the basketball and we don’t’ connect and play together. … I hope this team thinks we can beat anybody, and there’s something wrong with them if they don’t. I really hope they think that. And they’re going to really regret when they see this film tomorrow.”
Auriemma: “I say this all the time — when a team doesn’t score for a long period of time it isn’t just because somebody is playing good defense. They had something to do with that. Sometimes open shots just don’t go in. The pressure of the clock and the score, I think gets to you after a while. (But) that was a great defensive game for us tonight. Everybody had a hand in it.”
Gray: “I think we could have held them to fewer points. That fuels our offense. I’ll have to look at the film to really see what we can improve on. We did go into lapses where we gave up easy buckets, and sometimes we had facial expressions that we shouldn’t have had. We’ve just got to stay together with that.”
Peters: “I wouldn’t say we competed for 40 minutes. I think there were little lapses in the first half, and then a couple in the second. Maybe it’s closer, but clearly not enough. You need to play a team like that for 40 minutes.”
What does it all mean?
That the Blue Devils can honestly believe they can win the next time they play the mighty Huskies. And that they probably have to win their next 11 to have a good shot at that No. 1 seed in Raleigh.
Play of the game
Doty’s 3-pointer from the right elbow to make it 42-29 with 12:48 to go.
Duke: Lost 1.
UConn: Won 8.
UConn leads 8-3.
Duke vs. Wake Forest, Thursday, 7 p.m.
Connecticut vs. Rutgers, Saturday, 7 p.m.