Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru
Also written for Blue Star Media
The Roundup for the Others Under This Post.
DURHAM, N.C. – The usual expectations for a traditional Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball power against an opponent from the Ivy League is that the affair will be over quickly.
And that’s the way it looked like this one was headed Sunday afternoon when the Blue Devils began their home opener against defending Ivy champion Penn in a rush, getting six quick points from sophomore Kyra Lambert in 25 seconds and building a 13-0 lead by the time Duke got past the four minute mark in the first quarter.
Junior Michelle Nwokedi finally got the Quakers on the scoreboard with a layup 15 seconds later before the lead widened to 14 points at 18-4.
But that’s when the impending rout was halted as Penn got untracked and played competitively the rest of the way succumbing to a 68-55 setback in its season opener which also was Duke’s second contest after trouncing host Liberty 98-38 Friday night.
“I said to (Penn’s players) I’m proud of them, we had an opportunity when we came out here, obviously we got as bad a start as we could ask for, but we didn’t put our heads down, we tried to grind it out possession by possession, I’ve seen games like that really turn into something lopsided,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said afterwards.
“Overall, we clawed back, clawed back, I thought our post play (senior 6-foot-3 center Sydney Stipanovich and 6-3 junior Nowkedi) was terrific tonight. It’s a learning experience for us. We had some possessions we would like to have back but I’d like to give them credit – their guard play was very, very good.”
The inside tandem of Stipanovich and Nowkedi each produced a double double with Nwokedi getting 24 points and 11 rebounds despite having had early foul trouble with three personals in the first half while Stipanovich had 14 points and 12 rebounds.
"Michelle just grew as the game went on,” McLaughlin said of her coping with the defenses thrown at her by Duke. “She’s tough to guard and she can obviously shoot the three, she can go to you off the dribble, and she’s really skilled around the basket.
“Michelle and Sydney work really well together,” McLaughlin continued.
“Sydney’s tough to guard because she can step out a shoot a jump shot. I don’t think you’ll find many 6-3 – 6-3 ½ players that can do that. They’re going to take us as far as we’re going to go. We do a lot of things around them and I think that they both in this environment did really well.”
The Quakers got their deficit under double digits several times – down to seven on a 3-pointer by junior Alexis Glasgow late in the second quarter and once in the second half before Duke reached its largest lead of the day at 19 points.
But Penn kept plugging to get it down to 11 before the game ended.
Nwokedi, who hails from Texas, at various times was being challenged by four different Duke players who are at least 6-3.
“For me and for the team, I mean we love the competition,” Nowkedi said. “Coming into this game from the last (in Philadelphia), we knew they weren’t going to take us lightly, so I like that. I like going up against teams that are going to give it 100 percent, so I was just playing off whatever they gave me.”
A year ago the two met back in The Palestra in Philadelphia in the first game of the season for both teams when Penn was also behind early but not nearly as much as Sunday in Cameron Indoor Stadium, a place that was modeled after the Quakers’ home court.
But McLaughlin’s team rallied there also, taking a lead and threatening a major upset before Duke emerged with a 57-50 victory.
"That was an NCAA (tournament) game played in mid-November,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said of Sunday’s clash after improving to a perfect 8-0 personally against Ivy squads while the Duke program is also unbeaten at 11-0. “Last year we laughed afterwards because the game wasn’t as good and the ball got kicked around all over the place.
“They’re a good team. They could play anywhere in any league. In the NCAA last year they almost beat Washington, which got to the Final Four.”
McCallie continued the praise, saying she expects the Quakers will return to the NCAA tournament.
Nwokedi admitted to the team having jitters as the game got under way, a bit of a surprise considering how well they’ve played in two NCAA appearances and two postseason WNIT encounters the previous four years.
“… but I think it was a really good game to lead us into our future games,” she said of the squad that was an unanimous preseason choice to repeat as Ivy champions. “I think starting off (0-13) is not what we wanted, but going into future games we know we can come back and fight through it.”
Penn was held to 30.8 percent shooting from the field, which pleased McCallie in terms of Duke’s defense.
Though the Blue Devils missed the preseason rankings for the first time in several decades, McCallie said there’s no discussion on the drop off the national radar.
“We just want to keep getting better. The poll we want to be in is the poll in April.”
As for the game, McCallie observed, “We started out amazingly well offensively, that was a great thing for us, it’s hard to stay up with that kind of pace. That team is difficult to defend because of their exterior and interior.”
Incidentally, while the game was played here, the news elsewhere on campus was not so great for the locals with Delaware’s field hockey team upending the favored Blue Devils, the No. 1 overall seed, to earn a spot in the Final Four.
Meanwhile in terms of Duke personnel, the fans got their first home look at 5-9 redshirt junior guard Lexi Brown and the transfer from Maryland did not disappoint.
She scored a team high 20 points, shooting 8-for-16 from the field, nailed 3-of-7 three-point attempts and dealt three assists while Rebecca Greenwell, another redshirt junior guard, but because of an injury several seasons ago, scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Lambert scored 11 points and Oderah Chidom grabbed 14 rebounds.
““I’m so excited, I’m just so happy,” Brown said of finally getting to play after sitting out a season under NCAA eligibility rules. “ You know I look at the game with a different appreciation and a different love now.
“Game days are extra special to me now,” Brown continued. “ I definitely am so happy that I am here. I made the right decision of coming here. That year was long but I learned so much and I’m able to show what I learned this upcoming season.”
Nwokedi compared the Duke squad with the one that opened with them a year ago.
“I would say their guard play is a lot better. Coming into the game we knew they were more of a guard team than most teams, but I thought our guards did a really good job with the pressure of their guards,” she said.
“I mean, honestly, Duke’s guards are really good, so I think our guards did the best they could.”
Penn next hosts Binghamton Wednesday night at The Palestra in the Quakers’ home opener and then heads to Rhode Island Friday night.
Though the statistics indicate the even play of most of the game, Duke dominated the paint 32-18 and had a 19-8 advantage in points off turnovers. But Penn excelled 15-5 on second chance points – Nwokedi had seven offensive rebounds – and was tied 9-9 in fast break points.
As for having the slight advantage the rest of the game after Duke’s opening explosion, McLaughlin said, “I don’t think we came here to have a moral victory. But with that said, I think this is a long season and we have a mature group. I think we’ll grow from this and mature as a team and we’ll be in that situation again and hopefully we’ll be a little better for it.”