Duke defense comes up big in win over St. John's

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, size does matter, and it did for the Blue Devils of Duke in their 60-42 win over the Red Storm. Elizabeth Williams led the way with 16 points, seven rebounds, and five blocks. St. John's was led by Nadirah McKenith's 19 points; she added six rebounds, but had eight turnovers.

I don't want to say that it was a tight transfer and that they were trying to cut down on the time between games, but they were loading the St. John's band into place during the second half, much to the ire of the people sitting behind them. They also had the Red Storm ready in the tunnel to come onto the court for the courage award presentation thing before the final buzzer was done echoing from Rutgers and Louisiana Tech.

I feel so bad for Eugeneia McPherson. She looked lost and pained, though very well dressed. I had the urge to give her a hug, but I get the strong sense that doing so would be hazardous to my health.

We momentarily lost Briana Brown before the game. Go before warm-ups, Bri.

Duke was up 36-21 at the half, and it could have been better. My initial halftime thoughts were lost to a computer freeze, but they're so hilariously bad in hindsight that I feel compelled to share them so that you can point and laugh and be amused: I was sure that St. John's would improve their free throw shooting once they were away from the disruptive influence of the Duke band (well, percentage-wise, I guess 1-2 is better than 4-10) and the resolute look on Shenneika Smith's face as her team headed back to the locker room made me think that she was going to put the team on her shoulders and will them to victory, or at least respectability (yeah, that didn't happen).

Duke is intimidatingly tall. Why we kept shooting into people who were that tall, I will never know. They know how to use it, too. That makes them even more dangerous. Ka'lia Johnson was first off the bench for the Blue Devils, and she worked us over pretty good. Chloe Wells couldn't hit her shots, but she was still disruptive on defense. Allison Vernerey was an intimidating presence just outside the lane; she guarded the boundaries as if she were on active duty to prevent anything from entering the lane. I'm not sure how good her body control is, though; she looked a little awkward out there. When most of the big Duke players look comfortable in their frames, it makes for a sharp contrast. Sierra Moore played briefly in the second half and drove the lane for her basket.

Pretty much everyone's been kvelling over Elizabeth Williams, so I'll join the chorus. The fact that she's only a sophomore astounds me. She has a great knack for finding the ball and the basket. She finishes underneath. There are veteran posts in the WNBA who don't finish with the kind of consistency that she did. If McCallie can coach a post like her, and if she can keep developing at this rate... wow. The potential is out of this world. Haley Peters did a nice job of working the backdoor lanes as well. She's frighteningly versatile. Tricia Liston banged two threes in a row in the first half, just when I thought we might have a chance to make a bit of a run near the end of it. Chelsea Grey did a little bit of everything, and if she'd shot less, I might have been more impressed with her, but it's hard to be impressed with 3-10 shooting. (As mentioned above, I wasn't thrilled with a 4-10, so... yeah.) Alexis Jones had a cheering section sitting right behind the St. John's band, so we got to hear a lot about her. She wasn't all that great, though. Committed a lot of fouls and only had the one basket.

Ashley Perez played just long enough for Keylantra Langley to get taped up after sustaining a scratch... and to commit a touch foul when one of her teammates had a clean block. Awkwaaaard... no, I'm just kidding; if they hadn't had Ashley to call the foul on, they probably would have called it on Shenneika just to call it. Keylantra played her usual good defense, but her knack for hitting shots at the end of the shot clock backfired; three or four times, she or one of her teammates would let the clock wind down, get the shot ready, and end up with said shot smacked back in their face. This is not a good plan against a big team. Amber Thompson brought good minutes off the bench, aggressive on the boards and solid in the paint. (Shame about that elbow jumper; it usually goes in for her.)
I'm sort of curious as to why Sandra Udobi's not playing; a physical post would be rather useful against Duke, and Coach Tartamella's handling of Aliyyah Handford showed that he was willing to let a freshman muddle through her own mistakes.

Mary Nwachukwu started the game on defense like she thought she was still at Boston College and this was a must-win conference game. Duke adjusted to her a little better, but she was pretty much put in there to box out, get rebounds (which she did rather fail at), and play defense. I don't expect offense out of Mary. To be honest, I've trained myself not to expect much out of Mary, and to celebrate madly when she does something good.

Briana Brown was disappointing, especially given her hot start to the season, but a couple of those shots should have gone down and just fell prey to the merciless rims. She's matured a lot, though; we noticed better decision-making out of her on some plays, avoiding getting thwacked by large posts when she would have gone in recklessly her freshman year. Aliyyah Handford got all freshman-y on us and commited some not-bright fouls, though a couple of those were questionable calls. We saw the potential. We just also saw the mistakes. She'll learn. Point guards usually learn.

Shenneika Smith just couldn't hit the broad side of a barn in this one. Part of it may have been the energy she had to expend on defense against bigger and stronger players, but she missed shots that she normally hits, and shots that we needed at cusps. I love the blocks, though. I love it when Shenneika reaches up those go-go gadget arms and swats shots. I also love when Nadirah McKenith is awesome, and fortunately, that happens a lot. She was shaky early, but after they took her back to the locker room for brief treatment on her back, she was the same Nadirah we've all come to love. She took charge of her team and made things happen. She drove, she hit threes, she took more body blows than RGIII, and she found her teammates. She showed the grit and the strength that are going to give her a basketball career somewhere, whether it's in the WNBA or overseas. She's bedrock when you get down to her.

There was a stretch in the second half when it looked like Nadirah and Amber were pretty much just digging into the University High playbook and playing their game. Since it was the only thing that was working in that stretch, I'm not going to argue with them.

I'm surprised that Coach kept telling them to run the clock and take the last shot, given how many times it backfired. I'm also not sure whether I would have made some of the subs he did. He seemed dangerously close to Nancy Darsch territory at times, in terms of subbing out players who were in the flow of the game.

The officiating in the first half was deplorable. I thought someone was going to have to get hurt before we got a decent call in our favor. To be honest, I wasn't sure if that someone was going to turn out to be one of the refs. Joe Tartamella was furious. He had to be pushed back into his box by two different refs, and I think the only thing that kept him from getting that technical was that it was two different refs. I might have gone for it if I were him. Fire the team up and show them that you're in their corner. Things evened out a little bit in the second half, but it still felt like no one wanted to see an upset.

Santa, I've been a good St. John's fan. Can you put down the trombone and give me a healthy Gina for next season? Yes, the band had a Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, an elf, and for some reason, a dog. We just pretended that he was a reindeer. Have I mentioned that I love the St. John's band? Because they've grown on me over the years, and the arrangements with the flutist are spectacular.

I'm still proud of my team. We lost, yes, and it wasn't necessarily pretty. But we lost to a better team that knows how to exploit all our weaknesses, and we never gave up. No matter what the headlines tell you- and these notes have suffered some delays while I seethed at headlines- we never gave up. We played our defense. We blocked ten shots from a team that was taller and bigger than we were. We held them well below their previous season low. They worked around us enough on offense and stifled us on defense with their size. If you ever want to tell me that they gave up in that game, watch the replay and tell me how many times Nadirah McKenith hit the deck.

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