Cooper, Mathias ready to step up in NCAA tournament for Duke
When it’s time to win or go home, it’s not about the regular season record or the most points scored. Come tournament time, it’s about how you play the game.
Forward Kendall Cooper has transformed into an unrecognizable player, heading into the NCAA tournament having already scored 25 points in the postseason. The sophomore finished the regular season with noticeable success, stepping up to fill a gap left by injured classmate Oderah Chidom. Cooper has since elevated her play, starting half of the final six games of the regular season and shooting better than 50 percent in all but two.
Heading into the national tournament, Cooper’s play has never looked better.
“Confidence is key,” the Carson, Calif., native said. “You’ve got to send a message right away. You can’t take any team lightly. You never know who’s going to be a star player during these games, so come out strong.”
Her improvement didn’t end with regular season play—it took off. The forward drained a team-high 21 points against Wake Forest in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, the same total as her previous three game totals combined. The stellar performance didn’t end with lights-out shooting—she went 9-of-12 from the field—as Cooper added three rebounds, three blocks and three steals in just 23 minutes.
“During postseason is when you become a lot stronger as a player—mentally and physically,” Cooper said. “Lifting weights and going against your teammates in practice, it’s a different mentality when you do it in postseason than preseason.”
Cooper’s performance against the Demon Deacons might have seemed familiar to fans following the team on last year’s postseason stint. Taking on Winthrop in the first round of the 2014 NCAA tournament, Cooper scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds en route to her first collegiate double-double. Previously, the then-freshman hadn’t scored more than seven points in a game all season and had averaged 1.7 points per game entering the matchup.
“My first NCAA tournament experience—that was great,” Cooper said. “To send a message like that as a freshman—I enjoyed it a lot. I hope that [freshmen forwards] Erin [Mathias] and Azura [Stevens] have the same feeling, coming in with confidence, because that was key for me.”
Cooper—as well as Mathias and Stevens—have seen a great deal more of the court this season, due largely in part to Chidom’s injury and another sustained by freshman Lynee Belton Dec. 17 against Oklahoma. Since the Clemson game Feb. 8—the first game playing permanently without Chidom—Cooper has put together an average of 8.4 points across the eight games played.
The 6-foot-4 forward began her sophomore season with a 17-minute appearance against Alabama that featured eight points and two assists—a considerable contribution. Once Duke entered the tougher part of its schedule, though, Cooper found herself on the bench more often, splitting time with Stevens and Chidom to spell seniors Elizabeth Williams and Amber Henson from time to time.
“I try to be a positive role model for Erin and Azura as freshmen, because I know I look up to [Elizabeth] and Amber all the time,” Cooper said. “Elizabeth, she’s a great person to look up to, winning all these accolades, and Amber, she’s just a strong person—she never lets anything get in her way.”
Cooper’s first call to step up came Dec. 3 when Williams was forced to sit out against Nebraska due to an ankle injury. Although Stevens took the vacant starting position, the squad was down a big and had to substitute accordingly. Cooper scored one point by converting one of two free throws and stole the ball twice in the 60-54 loss to the Huskies.
It wasn’t until the final stages of the season that the sophomore forward found her spark. Her play did not lag after her performance against the Tigers—against whom she had 11 points and seven rebounds in just 19 minutes—and she finished the regular season against then-No. 15 North Carolina with eight points in just 14 minutes, shooting 3-for-6 from the field and draining both of her free throw attempts.
If the conference tournament is any indication, Blue Devil fans have only seen the beginning of Cooper’s potential on the court. With a year of experience to eradicate any first-time nerves, the sophomore can focus on her sharp shooting and tough defense to get Duke through to the next rounds.
“You have that one year underneath your belt, so confidence is key,” Cooper said. “It’s a time where you get to showcase who you are and what you’ve worked for…. People are going to try and knock me down, but I’m not going to let it happen—I’m stronger than ever.”
Cooper has not only improved herself but has set an example for Mathias, another reserve at the post position. The freshman saw few minutes early in the season but played 12 against Nebraska to help fill the hole left by Williams and was called upon again in February when Chidom’s season had officially ended. Mathias has since seen a steady increase in minutes, aiding the rebounding effort and adding a basket or two from the field.
“I’ve had to step my game up and be ready to come off the bench and play a few more minutes than I did at the beginning of the season, so I’ve definitely had to change my mindset a bit,” Mathias said. “I definitely will have to be focused for Friday’s game, and just be ready to give whatever I can off the bench.”
The Blue Devils will need everyone playing their best basketball starting Friday if the team hopes to extend its season beyond last year’s surprising second-round loss to DePaul. Duke has its first chance to advance Friday against Albany, and it will have talent that has developed across the season at its disposal.
“I see betterment with everyone,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “Everybody’s stepping up, and it’s a great opportunity for us to play together and really play at a level that we want to play at.”