How Duke bulldozed its way into the NCAA tournament picture

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 29: Haley Gorecki #2 of Duke University huddles with her teammates during a game between Penn and Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 29, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 29: Haley Gorecki #2 of Duke University huddles with her teammates during a game between Penn and Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 29, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images) /

DURHAM, N.C. – On Jan. 9, it looked like Duke’s season was heading toward disaster.

The Blue Devils had lost to Virginia by three points in a game they absolutely should’ve won. Duke couldn’t finish games, having lost three straight contests by five points or less. Joanne P. McCallie’s side was saddled with a 7-8 record, and off to a disappointing 1-3 start in ACC play. Duke was in danger of missing the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time in about 25 years, not doing so since the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons, the first two campaigns of the Gail Goestenkors’ era.

But since falling to Virginia, the Blue Devils have been rolling. Aside from a hiccup on the road vs. Clemson and a close home defeat to then-ranked No. 7 N.C. State, Duke has won every game, nine of its last 11 to be exact.

It began with an overtime victory at home against Virginia Tech, where the Blue Devils displayed poise, grit and the ability to finish. And this past Sunday, Duke got its signature win and its resume booster by beating then-ranked No. 14 Florida State in a nationally televised game. They avenged that earlier loss to Virginia too, thumping the Cavaliers 62-47 on Thursday in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke is now tied for third in the ACC standings, having a 10-5 mark in conference play with three games remaining. They’re all on the road, but they’re all winnable – even this Monday’s Play4Kay game at No. 10 N.C. State. If Duke does what its supposed to, and does what it’s shown it’s capable of, and wins at least two of its next three contests, it should find itself playing in the NCAA tournament next month.

“I got to say, we’re tied for nothing, it all matters when it ends,” McCallie said after the win over FSU. “We’ve got the regular season to go, so I’m going to interrupt on that. What’s made it great is this team has been in the tunnel and totally focused, they haven’t been doing anything but focusing on the game in front of us, and everybody, they have come collectively together to play. That’s part of our thing right now, it’s us focusing on us and anything can happen, and that’s exactly the position we want to put ourselves in.”

As of Thursday, High Post Hoops’ Russell Steinberg and ESPN’s Charlie Crème each had Duke in the tournament field in their latest editions of bracketology, projected as No. 11 and No. 9 seeds, respectively.

If Duke continues on its current path, we’ll be talking about them in about a week-and-a-half as the cliché team “nobody wants to play” in the ACC tournament. There are several reasons why.

Emergence of Lambert, Boykin

McCallie has not always had the luxury of having her full roster healthy, but over this past stretch of games the Blue Devils haven’t had to deal with any significant injuries. And the players who had been injured in the past – like Kyra Lambert and Mikayla Boykin – have rounded into form and are playing some of their best basketball.

Lambert is a graduate student who has had three knee surgeries in her career at Duke. She missed all of the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. But this year, Lambert is beginning to look even better than her old self. She’s started in 17 of the 26 games she’s appeared in and has been a boost to the Duke lineup. She had 11 points, four assists and six rebounds in Duke’s road win at Miami, and she’s third on the team in three’s made and third in assists.

“I really don’t have words for that,” Haley Gorecki said earlier this year of Lambert becoming a starter. “We always talked about that this summer; about she’s coming back… Having her on the court with me, next to me is pretty special.”

The other guard who has bounced back from knee issues to play an important role for Duke has been Mikayla Boykin. The redshirt freshman from Clinton, N.C. has suffered four ACL tears in her basketball playing career – two in high school and two at Duke. But this season, she’s performed superbly in spurts and stepped up in significant moments.

Duke doesn’t get its overtime win over Virginia Tech without Boykin, who tallied 14 points, three assists and a steal in the triumph. Boykin knocked down a trio of three-pointers in the fourth quarter to pull Duke within one point with 2:45 to play, then she dished the assist to Leaonna Odom for the overtime-forcing basket.

“She was an all-American coming out of high school. You know what she’s capable of. It’s just a matter of time before she’s going to get in her stride,” Hokies’ head coach Kenny Brooks said of Boykin. “She hit some big shots.”

Boykin is averaging 7.2 points and 2.9 assists per-game while shooting 41.2 percent from behind the arc. She’s also provided Duke with some stellar perimeter defense.

Depth down the bench

At full strength, McCallie has typically been playing with an eight-player rotation. And while Gorecki and Odom have been grabbing headlines and carrying the scoring loads, Duke’s other players have been contributing to wins in crucial ways.

Take Jade Williams for example, a 6-foot-5 junior who was a preseason candidate for the Leslie Award. While Williams struggled some earlier this season, she’s balled out lately, averaging 10.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 blocks per-game over her last six contests, five of which were wins for Duke.

Sophomore forward Onome Akinbode-James has escalated her game too. The athletic and energetic worker from Nigeria has shown an ability to play well out of the post and a tenacity on defense. While the scoring numbers aren’t always there, the defense and rebounding usually is. In the win over FSU, she had nine points, seven boards and two blocks.

“Onome is just doing super. I can’t compliment her enough. Her taking charges, her defense… She’s just really getting to understanding all she can do on the floor,” McCallie said. “It’s really exciting to all of us, especially her teammates, seeing her do what she can. She’s got a lot of game to offer.”

Battle tested

While Duke’s overall record might not match the number of wins most NCAA tournament-bound teams will have, a closer look reveals they are battle-tested and few teams – in the ACC or elsewhere – will be able to match the strength of schedule the Blue Devils have seen this year.

Duke has played the second hardest schedule of any ACC team and the 10th toughest nationally. The Blue Devils’ five non-conference losses came against teams who now have a combined 112-22 record. Those teams include No. 16 Texas A&M, No. 1 South Carolina, No. 18 Northwestern, Nebraska and Florida Gulf Coast.

And against top teams in the ACC, Duke hasn’t rolled over. They lost by five points on the road to now-ranked No. 5 Louisville and fell by three points to rival N.C. State.

In the latest RPI rankings, Duke is 31st.

An ace in Gorecki

One of the advantage’s Duke has is – in most games – it can make the case it has the most talented player on the floor. That player is Haley Gorecki, who time and time again this season has shown she can play with anyone, anytime, anywhere.

A 6-foot senior from Palatine, Illinois, Gorecki is a finalist for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award and she’s making the case to be an All-American. She is the only player among those playing for Power 5 conference teams who is averaging at least 18 points, 6.5 rebounds, four assists and two steals per-game.

With her skills and swagger, she can impact the game in about every way. Need three-pointers? Gorecki knocked down five of them against Davidson and Virginia. Need someone to knock down free throws? Gorecki hit 14 against Florida State and is fifth in the nation with 146 charity stripe shots made. Need rebounds? Gorecki grabbed 12 in wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Need a passer to set other players up? Gorecki dished out 10 assists against Penn and nine vs. Syracuse. And Gorecki does it all while wearing an intimidating game-face. Every time she steps on the court, she means business.

Simply put, she can do it all. If Sabrina Ionescu had left for the WNBA a year ago, we might be talking about Gorecki as the most versatile college player in the country.

“When you work very hard and you play hard, that automatically makes you a very good defender,” McCallie said of Gorecki’s defense. “I think Haley has been terrific off-ball, with steals and anticipation and I think her on-ball defense has improved in terms of one-on-one stops.”

UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said this over Gorecki after losing to Duke: “Gorecki had herself a night. I recruited that kid out of high school, I knew how good she was. What a special talent, you guys should enjoy her while you have her. And if you want to trade her, we’ll take her.”

Gorecki seems to show up in big games too. She tallied 21 points and six rebounds against FSU, had 21 points, seven rebounds and three assists vs. N.C. State, and totaled 20 points, five rebounds and five assists against Louisville. Only the best team in the country – South Carolina – has been able to hold Gorecki to a single-digit scoring total.

In the ACC, Gorecki is third in scoring (18.2), third in free throw percentage (85.9), seventh in assists (4.3) and third in steals (53).

“They’re a well-rounded team, but I’ll tell you, for me, Haley Gorecki is as good as it gets as a guard,” Boston College head coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “When she has the ball in her hands, she’s really hard to stop because she leans in and she does a great job attracting contact and then finishing if you don’t give her contact. She’s an all-around great player and I think she’s definitely a pro.”

Oh, and Leaonna Odom

Gorecki also has found a reliable sidekick in Leaonna Odom, but she’s not necessarily a Robin to Gorecki’s Batman. No, Odom is more like a partner in crime, like a Stringer Bell to Gorecki’s Avon Barksdale. With Odom’s high basketball IQ, leadership, toughness and relentless effort, she’s shown the ability to impact the game in a number of ways.

Earlier this season, Odom was tabbed as the USBWA National Player of the Week after leading Duke to wins over Syracuse and Georgia Tech, averaging 19.5 points, eight rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.5 steals per-game over those two contests while shooting 76 percent from the floor.

“Leaonna Odom, Haley Gorecki, I mean those two kids, we knew that we had our hands full with them, and it was really Odom; she just took the game over,” Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner said. “Just rose up and shot. I mean, there’s just no type of defense you can play on that, unless you can just keep the ball out of her hands. I thought she was pretty phenomenal today… We had no answer for Gorecki and Odom today. Those are two tough players.”

A 6-foot-2 senior from Lompoc, California, Odom is second on the team in scoring and rebounding. She also leads Duke in field goal percentage, hitting 54.7 percent of her shots this season, a mark that’s fourth best in the ACC. Against Florida State, Odom played 40 minutes and turned the ball over zero times while totaling 18 points and six rebounds.

And vs. Virginia on Thursday, Odom carried the team with 17 points, 12 rebounds and five steals. It was her 10th straight game scoring in double figures.

It didn’t seem like it when the season began, but Duke looks to have all pieces needed to make a solid postseason run. They have a star in Gorecki and a reliable and versatile second option in Odom. They have depth, health and a wealth of experience. They’ve stepped on the floor against some of the best teams in the country, and they have improved as the season has gone along.

They also have an identity in defense. Against Virginia, Duke tallied double-digit steals for the 15th time this season.

Don’t be fooled by the total in the loss column for the Blue Devils. They can play with anyone.

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