Duke guard Chelsea Gray scored a career-high 28 points and went 13-of-14 from the free throw line to pace Duke to its 36th straight win at home over an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) opponent, while remaining undefeated in conference play with a perfect 12-0 record.
The physical and gritty play that took place throughout this grudge match between the top two teams in the conference was not evident anywhere on the stats sheet.
“So that was important to us – to be physical and play against a physical team.”
Home court advantage
The win for the Blue Devils evened their all-time series record (39-39) with the Terrapins, while extending their current win streak against them in Cameron to five games.
For Maryland coach, Brenda Frese, the experience of leading her team on the hallowed hardwood in Durham has not been her most enjoyable experience.
With Monday’s loss, she dropped to 0-10 all-time while coaching there, and her conduct during the game didn’t enhance that experience at all.
Defense throws shooting off
With strong performances from Gray, forward Elizabeth Williams, whose work in the paint at both ends of the court earned her a double-double finish (16 points, 10 rebounds), and guard Tricia Liston (17 points, 6 rebounds), the Blue Devils were in control of this one from tip to finish.
As usual, the Blue Devils relied on their aggressive defensive play to keep Maryland’s top scorer Tianna Hawkins (6 points, 7 rebounds) contained while preseason ACC Player of the Year candidate Alyssa Thomas (14 points, 12 rebounds) struggled and scrapped viciously to keep her team in the game.
“It was just an off-shooting night, not making shots that I usually make,” Thomas said.
“A lot of things would go in and out, but that happens.”
Early on, Gray was not only hitting shots with the ball, but was also taking them physically.
She stood her ground on offensive charging calls against the Terps that helped the game’s momentum to swing and stay in Duke’s favor.
For Gray, taking that kind of impact and still remaining focused to finish the game with career-high totals was possible through her ability to prepare and deal with such impact.
“I have to fall a certain way or else I’m not getting back up,” she said.
“When Tianna Hawkins ran into my chest, it hurt really bad. But I knew I had to get up, there was still more game left to play.”
Never letting up
The importance of what this top-five battle brought with it, on both conference and national levels, was exhibited by a leniently officiated game that allowed both teams to literally fight it out until the end.
Duke held a narrow three-point lead, 31-28, at halftime, but still controlled the game’s tempo.
Even with a very boisterous crowd of 6,254 on hand to be a part of it, Maryland and its coach did not back down or let up in any way against the Blue Devils.
The Terps continued to scrap for loose balls and create turnovers, and with 10:51 remaining in the second half, guard Chloe Pavlech gave her team its first lead, 42-44 with a long three-point basket.
However, even as Maryland tried to take over the game’s momentum and add to its margin, it was Gray who denied it.
Gray launched a bomb from beyond the arc two minutes later to regain the lead, 45-44, and she added four more points to extend it further.
The Blue Devils never looked back after that point.
“She gave us a little psychological boost,” McCallie said.
“It was great. It wasn’t surprising though. We’ve all seen this of Chelsea. She’s a great player and it’s great to see her have those moments and take advantage of them.”
With Duke continuing to control the pace of the game, leading 59-50 and with less than four minutes to play, Frese, who had been battling with officials throughout the game, finally reached her limit and theirs.
Frese was assessed two technical fouls and ejected from the game, storming out with security at her side during the final media timeout.
The result of her actions was to reward Duke and Gray four opportunities to further add to their lead, which the junior guard did by dropping four clean shots into the basket.
“I am disappointed obviously,” Frese said.
“I don’t think the score is indicative in terms of how this team fought and how they played tonight. Obviously with the late free throws after the technical and the ejection, but I am proud of how we battled, hung in there, and fought for 40 minutes in a hostile environment, in a physical game.”
Keeping emotion out of it
For McCallie, having her team win such an emotionally-charged game, was an important experience for her players to have.
“For us, I think it’s very important,” she said.
“That’s one of the things I really like about this game. Just because the crowd was going crazy, for us, if you get to the emotional side of things, then you can do all sorts of strange things. I was really proud of our team.”
She continued on to talk about how critical it was for her team to filter out the distraction of Frese’s ejection which stirred much noise and jeering from the stands.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s for you or against you. They can be screaming at you or for you, but if you get into that fan mentality – if that’s what you do as a team – you’ll be short-lived. This team is just not into it.”
Very telling final words that best described the difference between winning and losing on Big Monday.