Lexi Gordon was starting over. So was Celeste Taylor.
So were 13 other players and four coaches.
Duke women’s basketball was starting over.
After playing only four games in 2020, the Blue Devils made the decision to stop the season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. During the extra-long offseason, first-year head coach Kara Lawson got to work, securing eight transfer students and signing two freshmen. So, even the three remaining players who had already spent time at Duke were entering a new situation. It was a completely new team.
“There were definitely nerves, especially because everything was so unknown,” said Gordon, who transferred from UConn to Texas Tech in 2019 before eventually landing at Duke. “There were so many different people coming from different places. And you wonder, ‘Are we going to mesh? Am I going to like my teammates?’”
But Lawson didn’t put together a roster of misfits. Those eight transfers were like puzzle pieces packaged in the wrong boxes — Lawson and her staff carefully sifted through the boxes, plucking out the pieces that would be perfect for the Duke puzzle.
The players had no way of knowing what the finished roster would look like when they each selected Duke. Instead, they relied on faith. And if you’re going to put your faith and basketball career in someone’s hands, Kara Lawson is a good choice. A coach with 12 years of WNBA experience and two Olympic gold medals — one as a player and one as Team USA’s 3×3 coach — knows what it takes to win.
“I think ultimately what led me to Duke was easily just that Kara is who she is,” said Taylor, a Texas transfer. “I knew she was going to build something that was going to be hard to turn down.”
The rebuilding process was something that appealed to both Taylor and Gordon, who are averaging 11.7 and 9.1 points per game, respectively, for the Blue Devils this season.
“For me, that was one of the biggest things that I looked at personally,” Taylor said. “Whether it was rebuilding a program, or just coming in and changing the culture of a program to a winning culture, to just have a competitive nature and competitive mindset.
“I think that is so important because we are going to be part of a legacy.”
When the 2021-22 season started, the legacy of this Duke team probably wasn’t on anyone’s radar outside of its own locker room. But slowly, the Blue Devils began to turn heads. They opened play with seven-straight wins and, with a 79-64 defeat of No. 9 Iowa on Dec. 3, reentered the national conversation.
Duke, which hadn’t been ranked in the top 25 since the 2018-19 preseason, surged to No. 19 in the AP poll that week.
“We weren’t really trying to prove to the world, to the rest of the basketball community that we can compete with teams like Iowa,” Taylor said. “But we were really just reiterating it to ourselves that we know the type of players we are, and we know the type of team we can be by the end of the season.”
Even if it wasn’t their intent, the Blue Devils did prove something. And two weeks later, when they stuck with No. 1 South Carolina before eventually losing 55-46, they proved it even more.
Duke was once again a program to be reckoned with.
The team has been a fixture in the top 25 since then, despite three more losses that followed the South Carolina defeat. Freshman guard Shayeann Day-Wilson, the 41st-ranked recruit in the Class of 2021, has been a revelation for the Blue Devils, leading the team with 12 points and 3.5 assists per game. Elizabeth Balogun, a senior transfer from Louisville, has also found a home at Duke, recording a team-high 20 blocks to go along with 10.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
Balogun game-winner btw 🍿😈 @eli4bathball 😈 pic.twitter.com/Oo4n3u3tmp— Duke Women’s Basketball (@DukeWBB) January 2, 2022
Balogun game-winner btw 🍿😈 @eli4bathball 😈 pic.twitter.com/Oo4n3u3tmp
Their return to the AP poll may have felt like a longtime coming to Duke fans, but from the moment they stepped on campus, the players knew it was only a matter of time.
“From the first week, we kind of made it a point of emphasis to get to know each other, hanging out and learning about each other,” Gordon said.
Players went to church together, they saw movies, they tried new restaurants or cooked. Once they knew each other as people, the Blue Devils started to learn about each other as players.
“We meshed pretty quickly,” Taylor said. “On the court, it takes time for players to learn each other’s tendencies and what they like and how they want to be spoken to. Just what motivates them. That takes time more than anything, but as of now, we are doing a pretty good job.”
Right now, Duke is eighth in a tough ACC that boasts five ranked teams (No. 3 NC State, No. 5 Louisville, No. 16 Georgia Tech, No. 20 Notre Dame and No. 21 Duke) and two teams just outside of the top 25 (Virginia Tech and North Carolina). The Blue Devils have the opportunity to jump North Carolina, who’s tied with Boston College for sixth in the ACC, on Thursday when they square off in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
With so many new faces, this will be the first time most of the Blue Devils experience the historic rivalry.
A year ago, Gordon and Taylor were on opposite sides of a rivalry, playing for Texas Tech and Texas. Taylor, a junior, spent two years at Texas, but realized during the pandemic that it was just too far from home. Durham, N.C. Is still an eight-hour drive from her home in New York, but that’s nothing compared to the 27 hours it took for her parents and siblings to get to Texas.
“My biggest thing is that I’m very independent,” she said. “But sometimes you just need someone to lean on.”
Taylor needed her family, and the move to Duke has allowed them to attend more games so far this season than over her two years at Texas.
For Gordon, the switch to Duke was more about a personal challenge and a deep connection with her coach. It wasn’t that she didn’t get along with her coaches at UConn or at Texas Tech, but something was missing.
“That bond wasn’t as strong as it could have been, and that is on me,” said the graduate student. “It’s a two-way street.”
With Lawson, the connection comes easily.
“I feel like our bond and our relationship is a little more special just because we are getting things started (with the program),” Gordon said. “It’s getting stronger and stronger.”
All eight transfers have their own reasons for choosing Duke as their second-chance school. But while they’re here now, they know the final destination has yet to be reached.
“You come here to win championships,” Gordon said. “So when I graduate and come back, I want to come back and see a program that we started, and we built a culture of winning within. And I feel like, with Kara and her staff and the people that we are recruiting, we can definitely do that.”
Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.