Stevens, Greenwell shine in tournament debuts, forecast bright future
Whatever happens this NCAA tournament, one thing is for sure: Duke’s future is bright.
On an afternoon when usual offensive anchor Elizabeth Williams faced a tough matchup against Mississippi State center Martha Alwal in her last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, freshman Azura Stevens took over the offense, leading the team with 22 points in the Blue Devils' 64-56 victory in the Round of 32. In the first round against Albany, redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell scored a team-high 20 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer with less than 20 seconds to play. These freshmen have shown that they are ready to play on the big stage.
"At this point in the year, they are sophomores. Azura was really tough inside today and she was tough to guard—she played inside and out," Williams said. "[Rebecca] was consistent, especially in the second half, and found her flow."
These performances should be no surprise. Stevens was ranked the ESPN No. 23 recruit in the nation coming into this season. The local Cary, N.C., product has been improving her game this whole season, and—along with Williams—has become a menace in the post. She has recorded more than 250 rebounds this season, leaving her barely trailing the leading rebounder Williams. Against the Bulldogs, most of Steven’s team-high 22 points came from inside the paint.
"If [Azura] is not Freshman of the Year, I tell you what, I don't know who it is," Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "She's been incredible, how much better she's gotten along the way. She knows how to use her height."
Post play is not the only thing Stevens can do. Although she is the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-5, Stevens’s style of play is extremely diverse. The All-ACC Freshman selection has very good ball-handling skills, allowing her to play out on the perimeter and shoot 3-pointers.
"I'm not used to guarding a 6-foot-5 player out on the wing," Mississippi State guard Kendra Grant said. "I think that was biggest thing, trying to penetrate and kick, it was difficult because [Duke] is long."
Stevens’s height and dribbling abilities create very favorable matchups, which she can leverage into points. The Duke forward has been working on her outside shooting this entire season, and the results are showing. This season, Stevens has shot a very respectable 30 percent from beyond the arc and knocked down a trey against Mississippi State.
"If there's a shorter player on me, I can post up and my teammates can do a good job of getting me the ball," Stevens said. "If there's a bigger player, I can bring her out and give my teammates more room to find me in the right places."
More than what can be gleaned from tangible statistics, Stevens’s ability to play outside creates spacing on the floor. She creates better passing lanes and helps give shooters that little extra space that makes all the difference.
In the first two games of her NCAA tournament career, Greenwell has been knocking down 3-pointers all over the court, good spacing or not. The Owensboro, Ky., native has been one of the team's biggest offensive contributors all season, averaging 14.3 points per game entering the tournament. Against Mississippi State, Greenwell scored a much-needed 17 points for the Blue Devils.
"[Rebecca] was just great as usual," McCallie said. "She was just ready to attack all the time."
The most touted part of Greenwell’s game is her 3-point shooting, and she delivered against the Bulldogs, making three of her six attempts from deep. Against Albany, 18 of Greenwell’s 20 points came from threes—the redshirt freshman hit 6-of-11 from downtown. But the 3-pointer that mattered most was the one Greenwell hit from deep with the shot clock about to expire, giving Duke a 53-52 lead and the eventual victory.
Williams played her last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium Sunday, meaning next year will be very different for the Blue Devils. People may worry what will happen to a Duke team that will be without the four-time All-American center who has been the face of the program for the past four years.
But with players like Stevens and Greenwell to take over the helm, the only people who should worry are the teams that will have to play Duke.