Although Duke has pulled within one win of the Final Four each of the past three seasons, the Blue Devils are confident that this year will be their year to break through. This is in large part thanks to the play of freshman Alexis Jones, early homecourt advantage and momentum following their ACC Tournament championship victory.
The No. 2-seeded Blue Devils (30-2) will look to begin the march to New Orleans Sunday at 12:05 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium against a 15th-seeded Hampton team that enters the contest with as much, if not more, momentum than the Blue Devils.
The Pirates (28-5) did not drop a single conference game this season, winning the MEAC regular season and tournament championship. Hampton has reeled off 19 straight wins, earning a bid to the tournament with their MEAC tournament championship victory against Howard.
Hampton will not be intimidated by the likes of the Blue Devils, having played a tasking non-conference schedule. The Pirates’ resume includes victories against Boston College, LSU and Southern Mississippi. The Pirates also had close games—all within 10 points—with South Carolina, Virginia Tech and Depaul.
As for Duke, many wrote the Blue Devils off after losing star junior point guard Chelsea Gray to a dislocated knee. But the emergence of Jones as a rising star has given Duke new life. The freshman walked away from the ACC Tournament with MVP honors, becoming just the third freshman to do so. Jones also used the experience to get used to the spotlight.
“I’m really confident in [Alexis],” sophomore center Elizabeth Williams said. “We’ve talked on and off the court so I’m just really looking forward to playing with her in the tournament and know she’s excited to step up for this.”
If a No. 2 seed and an emerging star were not enough, the Blue Devils will get to play the first two games of the tournament in Cameron Indoor Stadium, an advantage that will allow them even more time to build on the current momentum.
“It’s a great privilege and honor to host because we’ve done that before and we hope to do it again, but the reality of this time here is the urgency,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We just can’t wait to play.”
This is not the first time these two teams have faced off in the tournament or at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In 2010, the the Blue Devils defeated the Pirates in Durham 72-37 en route to an Elite Eight appearance.
“Hampton I know the best because we’ve played them before,” McCallie said. “They’re very well coached, a very good team, athletic and quick—play well together, have great success. It will be an excellent game for us to get after and defend. I can already feel the one-on-one stops and the things that are going to be necessary in that game given their quickness and athleticism.”
Although Hampton boasts an athletic lineup, the Blue Devils are clear favorites both in the paint with Williams and on the perimeter with Jones and junior guard Tricia Liston.
Williams, the reigning National Freshman of the Year, should hold a major edge against a smaller Pirates team. Williams leads Duke with 15.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Her defensive presence is also impossible to ignore, as the sophomore averages close to three blocks per game.
Although Duke has had a two-week layoff since its ACC title, the team has been working busily in that time to improve in anticipation of the tournament.
“For us there is a long wait,” McCallie said. “We’ve had some terrific practices, but nothing like having a game upcoming, having an opponent and having things that we really need to get better if we were to contend and be an excellent team.”
Both Williams and McCallie pointed out they were using that time to work on some areas that had been lacking in previous games such as rebounding and defensive effort.
“We’re excited to play and excited to improve upon some items that have been slipping,” McCallie said. “Our rebounding has slipped even though we have won basketball games. Our defense, our shot-contesting, there are certain areas that need to be more tenacious. Hopefully we can get that going and really improve in that way.”
If Duke can beat the Pirates, they will have another game at Cameron before potentially moving on to Norfolk, Va. for the regional finals.