Karen Barefoot likened it to a boxing match.
Going with the Old Dominion coach’s analogy, our takeaway from Thursday night’s Duke-Old Dominion showdown is that the Lady Monarchs can take a pretty mean punch – and can throw a few stiff ones, too.
The No. 7 Blue Devils brought their early season “A” game – or something pretty close to it – to Norfolk Thursday night. But they also brought out the highest level we’ve seen from these Lady Monarchs, who gave as good as they got for long stretches before bowing 82-66 at the Constant Center.
Consider that the No. 7 Blue Devils shots 54.7 percent, were plus-15 in on the boards, got a monster game from Virginia Beach’s own Elizabeth Williams (22 points, 8 rebounds, 5 blocks) and an even more monstrous effort from point guard and former Thomas Dale High star Ka’lia Johnson (18 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists).
In other words, Duke was Duke.
Now the Old Dominion team that misfired repeatedly in the season opener against Presbyterian, or the one that struggled to handle the ball (25 turnovers) Monday against William and Mary wouldn’t have been able to stand up to this.
But Thursday, the Lady Monarchs looked like a group that belonged on the same floor with one of the elite teams in the country.
The difference in ODU’s level of performance had Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie scratching her head.
“I don’t understand their game against William and Mary because they didn’t play that well, nothing like they did tonight,” McCallie said. “They have tremendous potential.”
Now the goal is to win, so given this program’s history it wouldn’t be very Old Dominion-like to break out champagne after a 16-point loss. That said, there’s no question this represented progress.
Last season, for example, too often Old Dominion’s offense could have been titled “Shae and the Kelley-ettes.” But with Duke’s talent and skill demanding a more diverse approach – or else - several Lady Monarchs put their hands on the rope, even if they had to step out of their comfort zone to get the grip.
Forward Chelisa Painter, who normally operates in the low box, took her game to the perimeter and burned the Blue Devils with three jumpers, including a 3-pointer (Didn’t know she had it in her). Yes, Tiffany Minor buries four of her patented 3s. But she also put the ball on the deck a couple of times and attacked the rim (Knew she had it in her, thrilled to see it on display).
Another 3-point specialist, LaQuanda Younger, got both of her field goals inside the arc. Yet another long-distance shooter, newcomer Annika Holopainen, skied (relatively speaking) for a offensive rebound and got a stickback in traffic. And on and on it went.
“I like them. I think they’re better than last year,” McCallie said. “I think they have more players who can score.”
Of course, Duke has players who can score, too. A lot. Old Dominion’s defense was rock-solid against Presbyterian and William and Mary, and the defensive effort was there Thursday, too. But against the lethal-at-all-five-positions Blue Devils, effort wasn’t quite enough.
The homegirl Williams dominated the proceedings like a female Tim Duncan – flash-free but brutally efficient (no jumpers off glass, though). As for Johnson, well, a year ago at this time Duke’s point guard slot was manned by All-American Chelsea Gray and All-American-in-waiting Alexis Jones. Both are no longer in Durham, but after watching Johnson stuff last night’s stat sheet, let’s just say the position remains in extremely capable hands.
That Old Dominion was able to hang around against this onslaught – the Lady Monarchs were within five at halftime and as close as 10 late in the second half – provided an encouraging glimpse of this team’s upside.
But just as we were careful not to read too much into ODU’s less-than-overwhelming efforts in its first two games, we shouldn’t automatically assume performances like Thursday’s are what we’re guaranteed to get from the Lady Monarchs every night from here on out, either.
A year ago, when Old Dominion visited Duke, the post-game talk from Camp Lady Monarchs was about how well the team played in a 24-point defeat. That sounded good until six days later, ODU opened Conference USA play with a 21-point loss at Tulane. Three days after that, the Lady Monarchs lost by 30 at home to Tulane.
Last year’s Duke game turned out to be an outlier. Will this one be more of a sign of things to come?
The relentlessly optimistic Barefoot certainly believes so. She insisted that Thursday’s performance against Duke was much more competitive (we agree), and that this is simply a better team than the 2013-14 edition.
The Lady Monarchs certainly appear to have the pieces to eventually prove their coach right. But for now, ODU fans should keep in mind that we’re still only three games into a season with a group that’s still learning to play together. So far it’s pretty clear this team will always play hard. Playing hard and effectively, every time out, may remain a work in progress.
But at least we've seen what this group is capable of. And if (when?) the Lady Monarchs get to the point where they can consistently produce performances like the one we saw Thursday, watch out.