Personnel, defense and chemistry cuing Duke’s resurgence

Celeste Taylor beats the defense to the rack to score. Duke Athletics photo.

She sits in her office at Duke University wearing her Team USA hoodie, and behind her are two framed pictures, which serve as touchstones.

One is a photo of her and three gold medalists from the U.S. women’s 3×3 basketball team, the first team ever to win gold in a sport that made its debut at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo two years ago. The other is a picture of her with the Boston Celtics team that she was an assistant coach for before being hired by the Blue Devils in the summer of 2020.

For head coach Kara Lawson, she still carries what she learned from coaching at the highest levels possible to Durham, North Carolina as she helms the ACC leaders, sitting at a 16-1 and a perfect 6-0 in conference play.

“You’re trying to help push your players to keep improving and to compete and to win, so that stays the same through whatever level and gender you coach,” Lawson said.

Her push for them to keep competing and winning has resulted in them being the top scoring defense in the ACC, allowing just 50.4 points per game. This level of defensive intensity allows for Duke to have the second-largest scoring margin in the conference, at +19.5, and the highest field goal percentage defense, allowing teams to shoot just 34 percent from the field.

This week the Blue Devils are No. 13 in the AP Top 25 poll, and they are looking like great candidates for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2018. Until that happens, Lawson wants her team to continue to improve – especially on the defensive end – and live up to the standard of playing hard, defending, and team basketball.

“We’re in a good position and we’ve got over 75 percent of the league left to play, so a lot could happen,” Lawson said. “Our league is really competitive this year, so that’s one of the things that we have to just focus on.”

Duke’s rise this season can be traced to the great crop of reliable talent that they have, including Celeste Taylor (12.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.3 steals and 0.7 blocks per game), Kennedy Brown (8.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 0.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game), Elizabeth Balogun (10.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks per game), Shayeann Day-Wilson (7.5 points, three rebounds and 0.6 steals per game), Reigan Richardson (6.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and one steal per game) and Jordyn Oliver (3.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game).

Kennedy Brown stretches past the defense to shoot. Duke Athletics photo.

Lawson believes that building a good team always begins by finding players that are such a good fit that coaches don’t need to convince them to buy into the program philosophy. She likes how her team is one that is motivated on their own, and she sees her job as putting them in the right position to succeed.

“It’s always relative to who you are playing,” Lawson said. “Certain teams are going to give you certain looks or you have certain advantages or disadvantages against every team you play and that changes depending on who you are playing and the personnel.”

In terms of being great experience to the Blue Devils, Taylor and Brown are upperclassmen that transferred over from Texas and Oregon State, respectively. Lawson believes that the prestige and brand of Duke in terms of athletics and academics draws this caliber of talent to the program.

For their part, both players enjoy being in Durham, and in particular playing in the ACC, as Brown fondly recalled their final game of 2022 on the road against the NC State Wolfpack, where players such as Taylor (23 points and eight rebounds), Balogun (16 points, seven rebounds, one steal and three blocks) and Richardson (9 points and four rebounds) really stepped up with a lot of energy.

“I just think that’s another cool thing about our team is that on any given night, any one of us could have a really big game or contribute in really big ways,” Brown said.

That point is driven home by the fact that they always have intense practices together as a team. At these sessions, they especially work on their defensive chemistry, in which Brown serves as the communicator on that end of the court, often calling out to her teammates when the opponent is running certain plays, such as screens, so that they can be prepared to defend against it.

In practice they either play against the scout team, or against each other in drills as a way of learning each other’s tendencies and how to guard each other. It especially helps them to develop a higher basketball IQ and build team chemistry. A lot of the team’s cohesion also comes from them spending time together off the court, where favorite activities include going out to eat and watching movies or TV.

For Taylor in particular, transferring to Duke from Texas has helped her to grow tremendously as both player and as a person – especially in terms of managing time. And she especially sees Lawson, her third coach in four years, as being pivotal to that growth.

“I really enjoy playing in the same system and just learning the system and being able to grow and flourish in that system,” Taylor said. “I’ve gotten better every year, and that’s due to not only the work that I put in, but here especially with the coaches, them helping me out and them helping me get better and definitely being in the gym with me all the time.”

Kara Lawson calls out to players on the floor during a home game. Duke Athletics photo.

Lawson encourages athletes every day, which translates to them pushing each other in practice. They know each other well enough that they don’t even have to verbally praise each other, because they already understand where they will be in terms of playing.

“Our defense is good now, but it’ll be better by the time March rolls around, and our offense as well,” Brown said. “I think that we’re constantly evolving and just improving, and so as good as it is now, I think that it can still be better.”

This squad has become better and better as the season goes along, and they are currently on a 11-game winning streak. They have not dropped a contest in almost two months, since losing to UConn in the Phil Knight Legacy tournament the day after Thanksgiving.

Since then, they have won games over opponents such as No. 11 NC State, one of last year’s Final Four teams in Louisville, one of last year’s tournament teams in Florida Gulf Coast, and 13-4 Virginia, never once allowing a single opponent to score over 60 points.

That streak was continued on Sunday with a 65-47 over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The source of a lot of the energy that they had in that win was the two-way Taylor, who had 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and five steals. Her performance earned her plaudits from Georgia Tech’s veteran head coach, Nell Fortner.

“That’s an All-American,” Fortner said. “She might be player of the year in the ACC. She’s just having a heck of a season. She’s quick and crafty and can shoot the heck out of the ball. She’s just an all-around a really good player and she’s using every bit of her ability right now.”

All of that was on display in the beginning of the second half, as Taylor scored the first 4 points of the second half for the Blue Devils, and then hit a 3-pointer to put her team up 32-30. That was just the start of a 13-4 run to start the second half, which eventually allowed them to pull away.

They had a 52-41 lead going into the fourth quarter, where they remained aggressive on defense, only allowing the Yellow Jackets to score 6 points and make two field goals the rest of the way. Overall, for the entire game, Duke shot 53 percent, while limiting their opponents to 37 percent.

With the way they are playing now, the Blue Devils have a legitimate shot at not only winning the ACC Tournament and ending their NCAA Tournament drought, but punching a Final Four ticket to Dallas. In the eyes of the players, for them to accomplish that goal will involve continuing to apply Lawson’s lessons of hard work and consistency, and building on the foundation that they already have.

“Our focus is on the game that’s ahead of us, the game that’s right in front of us, not holding on to the bad things that happened, like a loss or some turnovers during the game, but just moving on to the next play and continuing to help each other and compete with each other and against other teams,” Taylor said.

Duke will be tested tonight, as they play archrival No. 17 North Carolina in Chapel Hill at 8 p.m. ET.