Duke arrives in Sweet 16 ahead of schedule

NC State v Duke
Junior Reigan Richardson and head coach Kara Lawson have led No. 7-seed Duke to the Sweet 16. | Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The lowest-seeded team remaining in the NCAA Tournament, No. 7-seed Duke arrives at a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 3-seed UConn undaunted by deficits or doubts.

Last week, Sarah Strong, a 6-foot-2 forward who is the top-ranked women’s basketball recruit in the class of 2024, narrowed her list of schools to UConn, North Carolina and Duke.

A few days later, the Blue Devils made the quite the pitch to the native North Carolinian. In the second round of the NCAA Tournament, No. 7-seed Duke engineered a 16-point comeback on No. 2-seed Ohio State, becoming the lowest-seeded team to advance to the Sweet 16. (It also didn’t hurt that cross-Triangle rival, No. 8-seed North Carolina, was crushed by No. 1-seed South Carolina.)

Even without Strong’s commitment, Duke claims next season’s fifth-best freshman class, headlined by dunking Canadian Toby Fournier. Next year, in short, was supposed to be when Duke returned to the top of women’s college basketball, when this year’s team of freshmen, sophomores and transfers would be supplemented by additional elite talents.

Yet, it appears the Blue Devils have arrived ahead of schedule. And now that they’re here, don’t expect them easily to depart. A Sweet 16 date with No. 3-seed UConn, and another opportunity to impress Strong, awaits on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

On the other hand, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that Duke is here.

Anyone who has wandered through the woods of women’s basketball social media has encountered the viral speeches of head coach Kara Lawson, with her “Handle Hard Better” mantra subsequently inspiring merch and a SportsCenter feature. An experienced March killer from her days donning orange and white while manning point for the late and legendary Pat Summitt at Tennessee, Lawson’s style might differ from Summitt’s, but the substance seems to have similar effects. Like her mentor, Lawson is able to uncommonly inspire.

And the Blue Devils have to be prepared to “handle hard better” because, well, they tend to make things hard on themselves. Double-digit deficits and scoring droughts are features of any big Duke game. Before coming back from 16 points down against Ohio State in the second round, the Blue Devils trailed No. 10-seed Richmond by nine points at halftime of their first-round game.

But, that’s what makes Duke so impressive. Not only are they “down but not out,” but they go down and discover the best version of themselves. Deficits do not cause dissension or a devolution into selfish play; instead, the Blue Devils recommit to their principles. And that begins on the defensive end. Duke defends with relentlessness and aggression, all while maintaining high execution. Lockdown defense then leads to easier offense, as the Blue Devils will keep firing away, believing that the shots eventually will fall.

Through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, junior Reigan Richardson provided the scoring juice for the Blue Devils, following up a 25-point performance in the opening round with 28 points in the second round.

Other Blue Devils also are capable of popping off for big games. The fifth game of the season at Stanford, Duke found themselves down 30-17 after the first quarter, only to fight their way back and force overtime behind 25 points from sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson. Freshman guard Taina Mair led Duke with 24 points in a December win over FGCU. Freshman guard Oluchi Okananwa can be an off-the-bench scoring spark with two games of at least 20 points. In Duke’s regular-season win over North Carolina, freshman forward Delaney Thomas scored a career-high 19 points. Then, freshman wing Jadyn Donovan uses her athleticism to make gap-filling hustle plays, while senior center Kennedy Brown provides a presence in the paint.

On Saturday, the resilient Blue Devils face their toughest test yet in UConn and Naismith Player of the Year finalist Paige Bueckers. Don’t be surprised if the Huskies sprint out to an early lead, with Bueckers hitting smooth buckets, senior forward Aaliyah Edwards scoring down low and freshman guard Ashlynn Shade looking automatic from 3, while, on the other end, the Husky defense, piloted by senior guard Nika Mühl, troubles the Blue Devils. However, know that Duke will keep working, trusting their processes on both ends of the court to slowly and steadily chip away at UConn’s advantage.

In the end, the Blue Devils might not pull off the upset and advance to the Elite Eight. But, the comeback is coming again in 2024-25, when Duke possibly will be Strong-er than ever.

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