There was never really a feeling that the Duke Blue Devils weren't in control of the game, even as the California Golden Bears used a three-minute, 10-0 run late in the first half to cut the lead to just one point.
Heading into halftime up just five points, Duke was facing an opponent on their home court with increasing confidence fueled by a rejuvenated crowd of Cal fans who still had the program's first-ever Final Four trip fresh in mind after a pre-game banner-raising ceremony.
Leaving Haas Pavilion with a win was going to be a challenge, but Blue Devils coach Joanne P. McCallie didn't have to say much at halftime to get her team back on track en route to a 70-58 win on Sunday.
"I think we tweaked some things, but I think more than anything the players were a little irritated with themselves for certain things that didn't happen in the first half and certain things that we could have converted or stopped," McCallie said when asked about what they emphasized at halftime. "So I thought it really came from them and that's important to come out and try to get it right and get it better. And I think for most of the second half we did - there were some let-ups there, but for most of it we did."
Duke's second half run fueled by defense and speed
A re-focused Duke team came out in the second half, went on a 13-2 run on their own to start the half, and held Cal to just one field goal in the first six minutes to claim a 70-58 road win to open their season that was probably more convincing than the final score suggests.
In short, Duke just dominated every phase of the game in that stretch, beginning with their defensive scheme.
"Cal likes to go, go, go, go, go," McCallie said when asked about Duke's decision to play a match up zone. "So you have to kind of get ahead of them. So there's just different things we're trying to work on defensively...They're very athletic and they like to shoot the gaps."
As a mediocre 3-point shooting team, Cal is accustomed to teams throwing a zone at them and challenging them to launch shots from the perimeter. Yet with Elizabeth Williams patrolling the paint for Duke, Cal wasn't able to establish a strong interior game despite looking much more committed to looking toward the post than they did in their season opener against Long Beach State. That's when Cal has normally been successful by getting out and pushing the ball in transition in the past.
"I did my best to try to push the ball up the floor as fast as possible so they couldn't set up in their defense," Cal point guard Brittany Boyd said after the game.
However, on this day it was Duke that got going in transition off of a combination Cal's missed shots and a bad turnover by Reshanda Gray on an attempt to make an entry pass. With both star guard Chelsea Gray and sophomore Alexis Jones able to lead the break, Duke quickly claimed the transition game as their territory and simply overwhelmed Cal in mounting a 15-point lead with 13:53 left that proved to be enough of a cushion to withstand the best comeback efforts of a hungry opponent.
Duke hardly played the perfect game in their first outing - both coaches acknowledged after the game that an early-November game such as this one is more of something to build on than a major accomplishment or failure. But at this time of year when many teams from power conferences are blowing out overmatched opponents, greatness is often demonstrated in how well the top teams respond when challenged. Under the spotlight of a nationally televised road game against a top 10 opponent, Duke showed the type of resilience required to remain among the nation's top five for the duration of a season in a conference made more difficult by this season by the addition of Notre Dame.
Part of that resilience is certainly that Duke is an experienced and battle-tested team with five seniors on the roster and a standout junior. And the box score will probably go a long way to explaining why Duke was able to win this game: Chelsea Gray had an impressive game-high 22 points to go with 5 assists and 4 rebounds, they had a huge advantage in scoring efficiency, and most significantly they won the rebounding battle.
Key statistic: Offensive rebounding
Nick Kranz of California Golden Blogs noted the importance of rebounding in last year's game and it clearly played a role in this year's matchup as well. Although a seven-rebound advantage might not leap off the page as dominant, it is made more significant against a Cal team that shot just 32.3% on their home floor - where they can normally overcome poor shooting is with second chance points and Duke used an 18-16 offensive rebound advantage to establish a 15-14 edge in second chance points.
"If I had to pick one stat, that's it," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said after the game. "They really were aggressive to the ball. They're different kinds of rebounders than us: they're more bulky and powerful and strong and that really bothered us."
Unsung hero: Alexis Jones' ball handling and defense
Yet what the box score might not clearly show is the role that Duke's supporting cast played. While seniors Gray and Tricia Liston each shot 7-for-12 and junior center Elizabeth Williams had a game-high 6 offensive rebounds, senior Richa Jackson came off the bench to score 13 points on 6-for-7 shooting and redshirt freshman Amber Henson came off the bench to grab 4 rebounds in 11 minutes. However, sophomore Alexis Jones also made a subtle contribution that can't go unnoticed despite shooting just 1-for-9.
"She's quick and fast and athletic and she can really go," McCallie said. "Defensively, she gives us quickness on the floor. She's really learned a lot - she's still learning as a sophomore...She really feels her way into the game a little bit. Maybe today she had to do some other things."
Not only did Jones finish with five assists as she helped Duke's offense run as an alternate distributor, but it was the sophomore who was responsible for guarding Brittany Boyd when they played man-to-man defense and was a key part of their perimeter pressure when Duke went to zone. Given that Gray is coming off of a knee injury that was clearly causing some soreness throughout the game, Jones' ability to keep up with the engine that makes Cal go defensively was a major asset that isn't clearly reflected in the statistics.
Jones' performance might reflect what makes Duke such a difficult opponent as much as their statistical stars from the game: the Blue Devils have a number of weapons at their disposal and an argument could be made that they outplayed Cal position-by-position in almost every phase of the game.
Cal still has plenty of upside
As Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb said most concisely, Duke exposed her team.
"I'm proud of how we fought in this (game)," Gottlieb told the media in her opening statement. "I think this exposed us in ways that we can and will get better."
As Gottlieb alluded to, they might have been blown out on their own floor had they played as poorly as they did in their opener against Long Beach State when they struggled to even look at open post players and settled for poor shots.
"We weren't successful in the short term, but the long-term stuff I think we responded well versus I think we were pretty sloppy on Friday night against Long Beach," Gottlieb said of Cal's season opener in which they went 3-for-23 from the 3-point line and couldn't seem to get the ball into the post against a smaller team. "If we had played that way, maybe it wouldn't have been a close game today."
Although the win is certainly a testament to Duke's considerable talent, it's not necessarily true that Cal fans should worry at this point: they'll continue to make incremental improvements as they try to adjust to life after one of the best classes in history graduated.
- Cal's Afure Jemerigbe is already looking much more aggressive as a scorer and that's a big deal for the Bears, despite her four turnovers. She got to the line a number of times in the first half off the dribble, which helped to make Cal's offense more dynamic than the one that stood around missing perimeter shots against Long Beach. She has always been a serviceable 3-point shooter on a team in desperate need of long-range options, but if they're going to continue struggling to get the ball inside her ability to drive and create higher percentage shots will be significant.
- Brittany Boyd did a fantastic job leading the team. It's the little things like knowing when to push or when to slow things down to wait for a teammate lagging behind the play. The fact that she was more aggressive as a scorer yesterday was certainly an asset to Cal, but more than anything her speed and ball handling ability in the open floor is just a total game changer: in situations where most point guards would be forced to stop and get rid of the ball - or just cough it up - Boyd is both confident enough and skilled enough to run through a group of defenders to make a play.
It's a high-risk style of play, but it's clear that this team goes as Brittany Boyd goes - when Boyd is pushing the ball, breaking down the defense, and able to find others on the kick out they're great. When she's bottled up or forced to give up the ball, Cal becomes much easier to defend. That's pretty obvious and certainly wasn't lost on Duke. But even Boyd penetrating a bad twisting, contorting shot is better than her giving up the ball early in the offense because it's an offensive rebounding opportunity: right now, she's the player who they rely on to create shots and she's not as big a threat off the ball as a catch and shoot player.
- Offensively, Duke just punished Cal for overplaying them anywhere on the floor as they have players constantly setting screens and moving without the ball. There were a few situations - particularly in the second half - where Cal defenders running at shooters resulted in scores off dribble penetration. And with nobody on Cal's roster able to stay in front of Gray consistently - and the officials calling contact very closely, even if Gray was the aggressor - they were constantly giving up something even when they played relatively strong defense as a unit.
- Cal forward Gennifer Brandon struggled in the limited action she saw yesterday, going 0-for-3 on a few off-balance shots in 9 minutes of play. Although she did make a strong first impression with a big offensive board shortly after she entered the game with 13:18 left in the first half, she wasn't able to get much going after that. Over the course of starter's minutes - whenever she's ready for that - her rebounding presence alone will be a huge asset for Cal.
- An interesting footnote: On the printed box score distributed to media after the press conferences, the attendance is 5023. The announced attendance published with the box score online is 10771. Obviously the latter was posted later, but I will say that I wasn't under the impression that the former number was wrong.
For full coverage on the game, check out our Cal-Duke storystream.