Duke women’s basketball back in top 10. What that means for Triangle’s other ACC teams

Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

While a ranking in early February isn’t worthy of hanging a banner, Duke women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson has some appreciation of what a top-10 ranking means for her team.

Neighborhood ACC rivals N.C. State and North Carolina appeared in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 Poll earlier this season.

For Duke, Monday’s poll showing the Blue Devils at No. 9 marked the first time since 2017 the program played well enough to crack the top 10.

“Listen,” Lawson said during a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday, “we’ve been bringing up the rear for a couple years here. So what I focused on is just getting our program up to a level of competitiveness, with being able to put ourselves in position to compete with the elite programs.”

In Lawson’s third season as coach, the Blue Devils (20-3, 10-2 ACC) find themselves atop the ACC regular-season standings. A 57-52 win at Notre Dame on Sunday vaulted Duke past the Irish (18-4, 9-3) into first place.

Ranked No. 16 and playing the No. 9 team in the country on the road in that game, Duke pushed past Notre Dame in the new poll as the Irish fell to No. 10.

It’s a welcomed milepost for Duke, which last played in the NCAA tournament in 2018, when it advanced to the Sweet 16.

But it’s far from the final accomplishment Lawson and her players have in mind.

“We’re two-thirds of the way through the conference season,” Lawson said. “Our focus is on the last third. I do believe the last third will be our most difficult third. We’re gonna have to play really well. It keeps getting harder from here. It doesn’t get easier.”

Duke has six ACC regular-season games remaining, and three of them will be against teams included in this week’s AP Top 25.

After playing at Boston College on Thursday and home against Miami on Sunday, the Blue Devils play at No. 11 Virginia Tech on Feb. 16. After a road trip to Virginia on Feb. 19, Duke closes the regular season at home with No. 22 N.C. State on Feb 23 and No. 14 UNC on Feb. 26.

But, for the first time in five years, Duke is playing like a team equipped to handle such a schedule, particularly on the defensive end.

Duke is No. 4 in the country in scoring defense (52.1 points per game) while only allowing its opponents to make 35% of their field goal attempts (No. 12 nationally).

That part of Duke’s game carried the Blue Devils past Notre Dame on Sunday when the Irish tallied just six points in the fourth quarter. Playing on its home court, Notre Dame hit only 2 of 14 shots in the final 10 minutes.

It was yet another example of the Blue Devils locking an opponent down. That is a major difference, Lawson said, from last season, when Duke finished 17-13.

“We identified that as something we had to improve on,” Lawson said. “Then we talked about it as a staff, watched film together and made some changes.”

Now the Blue Devils press regularly and with aggressiveness.

“The tempo of the game has increased for us,” Lawson said. “We’re much more disruptive through the course of the game. We get more deflections. We get more turnovers. And it’s harder for people to score on us than it was last year.”

That style of play put Duke back among the nation’s top 10 teams with several strong tests remaining ahead.