Blue Devil women's basketball to take on Maryland in Sweet 16
After Maryland decided to leave for the Big Ten following the 2013-14 regular season, the Blue Devils figured it would be a while before they would face off against their longtime ACC rival.
Just one year later, fourth-seeded Duke heads to Spokane, Wash., to take on the top-seeded Terrapins for a spot in the Elite Eight Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Spokane Arena. The Blue Devils advanced to the West region semifinals following a narrow victory against 13-seed Albany and a 64-56 win against fifth-seeded Mississippi State.
“It does feel like another ACC battle, perse, from the standpoint of their longevity in the league,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “This team has just done a great job of just staying right there. There’s nowhere else to be and nothing else matters until we get after things on Saturday.”
Despite entering the tournament as a four-seed with 10 losses, Duke (23-10) finds itself in the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last six years. The Blue Devils have been spearheaded in their first two contests by the duo of freshman Azura Stevens and redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell, who have combined to average 35.0 of Duke’s 59.0 points per game in the postseason. With Stevens creating a mismatch with her size and versatility and Greenwell heating up from beyond the arc, the Blue Devils were able to stave off their pesky opponents in the opening weekend.
“We’re gaining a lot of experience quickly now, but we’re definitely a young and exciting team,” McCallie said. “Only Elizabeth Williams has any amount of experience when it comes to postseason play.”
But waiting for them in Spokane is red-hot Maryland, which enters the tournament on a 26-game winning streak.
After making a run to the Final Four a year ago, the Terrapins (32-2) have had another great season led by guards Laurin Mincy, Lexie Brown and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough along with the interior presence of Brionna Jones. The ability of the trio of guards to penetrate the defense and kick to open shooters has fueled Maryland’s prolific offense—which ranks sixth in the nation at 80.2 points per game. The Terrapins have also flashed their ability to heat up from beyond the arc as evident by their 12-of-20 shooting performance from deep in their second-round victory against previously undefeated Princeton
In contrast to Maryland’s guard-oriented lineup, Duke will look to take advantage of its size in the paint. As the tallest team in the nation, the Blue Devils have relied on big bodies down low to carry the load thus far in the tournament and the team’s 13.5 rebounding advantage was crucial in its opening weekend victories. In the second half of Duke’s win against Mississippi State, it was the interior passing between the Blue Devil post players that allowed the team to get going offensively.
“Our attack mode was very good against Mississippi State,” McCallie said. “Defensively, it’s going to be really important that we’re well rested and ready to take on some serious penetrators—Maryland likes to kick and create and shoot gaps.”
Duke’s chances at pulling off the upset Saturday will come down to two major factors—limiting turnovers and feeding its All-American center, Williams.
The Blue Devils’ 44 turnovers in the first two games have allowed their opponents to feast on easy layups in transition and stay in the game. Against the speedy Terrapin guards, unforced errors could put the Blue Devils in a deep hole early. Senior Ka’lia Johnson will be most responsible for helping Duke take care off the ball and will need to play a smart, balanced game—facilitating the offense and attacking when necessary.
But Duke will also need a great performance from its other senior—Williams. After knocking on the door of the Final Four twice during her career without breaking through, the center has one final chance to reach the promised land this weekend. In the first two games of the tournament, the All-American has averaged just 10.5 points per game on 7-of-21 shooting. As the Blue Devils’ anchor on defense, Williams will be the x-factor by altering Maryland’s shots in the paint.
“Even though we’re traveling further away, we still have to remember what things we’re good at and what things we need to continue to do,” Williams said.
After pushing past a season full of adversity—including injuries, a departure and one of the toughest schedules in the country—and surviving an opening round scare, Duke knows it has another uphill battle heading its way in Spokane this weekend. But that seems to be just the way it likes it.
“When you think about what we’ve lost and what this team has gone through, we’re really proud of who we are,” McCallie said. “We want to be the dog. We’re not worried about top dog or underdog. If you’re out in Vegas, you’re probably not betting on us, but the reality is that’s life.”
With a win Saturday, the Blue Devils would advance to the Elite Eight to take on the winner of Gonzaga and Tennessee Monday at 9 p.m.