Duke women's basketball set to host Albany in opening round of NCAA tournament
After being stunned in Durham in the second round of the NCAA tournament a year ago, the Blue Devils will look to take advantage of their home-court advantage and start what hopes to be a deep run into March this time around.
No. 4 seed Duke will open tournament play with a first round matchup against 13th-seeded Albany Friday at noon at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Great Danes received an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament and the highest seed in program history following their fourth consecutive America East title.
"We are just really excited to play," Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "This group is really doing some nice things together and frankly moving the ball better and with less hesitancy in terms of passing and creating things for each other."
With a rollercoaster regular season behind them, the Blue Devils (21-10) are looking forward to having a clean slate entering the tournament. Duke enters with perhaps less pressure than in recent seasons, as the Blue Devils' four-seed is its lowest since 1997. But despite personnel losses due to injuries and the departure of freshman Sierra Calhoun—as well as two separate three-game losing streaks—Duke still possesses the individual talent and size in the post to give top teams in the tournament trouble.
Before they can worry about the Final Four in Tampa, Fla., or the regional in Spokane, Wash., the Blue Devils’ first order of business will be defending their home-court, where they only dropped one game in the regular season. Just one season ago, a No. 2 Duke squad saw its tournament hopes crushed by a stunning home loss to seventh-seeded DePaul.
As has been the case for much of the season, Duke will look to take advantage of the mismatches freshman Azura Stevens and senior Elizabeth Williams pose in the post at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-3, respectively. The duo will go up against an Albany squad that has no players taller than 6-foot-2, but ranks 24th in the nation in rebounding margin. If the Blue Devil post players are able to dominate the boards and use their presence down low to help get open looks on the perimeter, Duke figures to put away the Great Danes early.
"This whole year it has been a key for us getting the ball inside first," senior Amber Henson said. "We are definitely going to exploit that."
On defense, Duke will need to do whatever it takes to slow down the Great Danes' leading scorer, Shereesha Richards. The America East Player of the Year comes into the tournament averaging 21.3 points per game to go along with 9.0 rebounds per contest and has had success against the Blue Devils in the past. In an 80-51 loss to Duke last season, the Rae Town, Jamaica, native led the way for the Great Danes with 24 points and 7 rebounds as Albany held the lead for much of the first half.
"She is a really good player," Williams said. "She did a really good job getting inside and being a beast rebounding. Offensively, she is very active, so I think for us it's important for us to be active on defense and keep her off the boards."
The deciding factor for the Blue Devils Friday could be their three-point shooting. In its last six games, Duke has shot just 18.1 percent from deep, which has allowed teams to key in on the Blue Devils' big bodies down low. Guards Ka’lia Johnson and Rebecca Greenwell will play key roles in helping Duke get into its offense and spacing the floor on the perimeter.
On the other hand, Duke has struggled to defend the perimeter all season and allowed the second-most 3-pointers in school history. Although the Great Danes are not a perimeter-oriented team, a few early jumpers could give the squad a boost of confidence and put the pressure on the Blue Devils.
"Because they are so long and tall, their wingspan is just crazy, so you have to have unbelievable ball reversal and ball movement," Albany head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. "You've got to pick your poison when you shoot the ball, and once you get open, you better shoot because their length is going to come get you."
With a win Friday, the Blue Devils would get another chance to play in front of the home crowd Sunday against the winner of the matchup between fifth-seeded Mississippi State and No. 12 seed Tulane.