Early adversity has Duke ready for NCAA tournament
The Blue Devils have withstood adversity through what has proven to be one of the most difficult campaigns they have faced in years. Despite dealing with the burdens of a difficult schedule and numerous roster changes, Duke is a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and will host 13th-seeded Albany Friday.
After a season full of uncertainty for the Blue Devils, only one question remains: can they overcome these trials and tribulations and succeed in the most unforgiving environment in college basketball—the NCAA tournament?
“If anything, I think the adversity makes us a stronger team,” sophomore Kendall Cooper said. “After all we’ve been through, we deserve to fight and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re going to give it all in the tournament.”
Duke knew of its first challenge before the season even began. Its schedule—ranked fourth in strength of schedule—featured 10 teams ranked in the top 25 when they played the Blue Devils.
Aside from the sheer amount of talented teams on Duke’s schedule, the Blue Devils’ campaign was difficult because of its structure. Early on in the season, Duke played three successive games against top-15 opponents—then-No. 7 Texas A&M, then-No. 12 Nebraska and then-No. 1 South Carolina. After a series of difficult games during conference play in a powerhouse ACC, the Blue Devils completed their regular season with four consecutive road games—including a matchup with then-No. 4 Notre Dame—followed by a rivalry game at home against No. 15 North Carolina.
“Our body of work prepares us really well for the tournament,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We’ve seen a little bit of everything. I think we should’ve been [a third seed] for what we’ve done.”
Taking on this schedule would be difficult in and of itself—add on the numerous roster changes Duke had to cope with throughout the season and one starts to get a picture of just how challenging its season truly was. The Blue Devils began the year with 12 eligible scholarship players—including senior walk-on-turned-scholarship-player Jenna Frush. Going into the tournament, however, Duke has just eight eligible recruited scholarship players.
The Blue Devils lost both Lynee Belton and Oderah Chidom to injury during the season. Duke also lost freshman guard Sierra Calhoun—the rookie started all 13 games as a Blue Devil—who elected to withdraw from Duke for personal reasons.
“It’s the game of basketball,” senior Ka’lia Johnson said. “There have been injuries or something else going on really since I’ve been here [at Duke]. It just really shows what your team is made of. We’ve had different players on past teams and this team step up and play big minutes.”
In the Blue Devils’ 92-72 domination of Oklahoma Dec. 17, Belton had a career-high 10 points and four rebounds in her 12 minutes of play off the bench. With 18 seconds left, Belton collided with an opposing player, resulting in an ACL tear in her left knee and ending her season. Belton applied for a medical redshirt.
“In the last 18 seconds of a game in which she scored 10 points and that happens?” McCallie said after the win. “I can’t even begin to understand that. It adds fuel to the fire. It makes me mad. She’ll handle it well and she’ll learn from it herself, but it just doesn’t seem right.”
Chidom, who took on a starting role for Duke after Calhoun’s departure, suffered from shoulder problems for much of her season. She left two separate games—one Nov. 30 and one Jan. 15—after dislocating her left shoulder on impact plays. Her shoulder seemed to be recovering nicely until she dislocated it for a third time at Wake Forest Feb. 5. This time, however, there was no contact on the play. Chidom had surgery Feb. 19 and is expected to make a full recovery for next season.
The Oakland, Calif., native saw action in 21 games and started in six on the season. She was averaging 8.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, making her the fourth-leading scorer on the team. She hit 56.6 percent of her field goals.
“When one goes down, everybody has to step up,” Cooper said. “It’s not just one person. Oderah going down made everybody step up a lot. We owe it all to her now.”
Although the loss was devastating for the Blue Devils, Cooper immediately stepped up to fill the void. In Duke’s first contest following Chidom’s injury, the Carson, Calif., native posted 11 points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes of play.
The 6-foot-4 Cooper has improved since being cast into a starting roll. She played exceptionally well in the ACC tournament, scoring a career and team-high 21 points in the Blue Devils’ quarterfinal victory against Wake Forest.
“I’ve developed more,” Cooper said. “I’ve become a lot stronger mentally and physically, and I think that’s very important coming into this tournament.”
Cooper’s successful transformation from sixth man to starter showcases Duke’s resilience through all of the adversity it faced throughout the regular season. Despite all the setbacks, the Blue Devils have managed to remain competitive with some of the nation’s best teams. Most notably, Duke took No. 1 seed South Carolina to the brink Dec. 7, falling by just a single point on a last-second layup.
In their most recent game, the Blue Devils stayed competitive with Notre Dame in the semifinals of the ACC tournament—losing only by six after staging a furious comeback attempt. In addition to dominating the conference in the regular season, the Fighting Irish went on to win the ACC tournament and earned a top seed for the NCAA tournament.
“That game [against South Carolina] should’ve been done, but now it motivates us” McCallie said. “We want them back. We’ve come close with Notre Dame too—not just once, but twice. We played Notre Dame better than any other ACC team if you look at the stats. We showed progress there and the key now is to take it up a notch.”
So to answer the initial question—yes, Duke has proven itself resilient enough to take on setbacks and still remain competitive. The Blue Devils have grown from overcoming these obstacles in the regular season, and the result is a team with less players but more fight. So long as Duke can play consistently to its potential, it will overcome the most unforgiving environment in college basketball as it did every other hindrance it has faced thus far—successfully.