Even with the recent loss of star guard Chelsea Gray, Duke enters this weekend’s ACC tournament as the No. 1 seed and a heavy favorite to win.
And after going one-and-done in last year’s ACC tournament, losing to N.C. State in the quarterfinals, Duke will have its chance for revenge against the eighth-seeded Wolfpack in the quarterfinals.
“It’s three games,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “You can earn three games, and that’s a special thing to do at this time of the year. Literally it’s either play games or practice. So you want to earn three games.”
Without Gray, the Blue Devils (27-2, 17-1 in the ACC) clinched their fourth straight regular season title two weeks ago by taking down a tough Maryland squad, ranked No. 8 in the nation at the time.
They followed that up with a win against a ranked Florida State squad, but later dropped their first ACC game to Miami before finishing the season with a victory against North Carolina.
Only the Hurricanes found the right strategy to knocking off the ACC’s top team, taking down Duke last Thursday in Coral Gables 69-65. If not for the slipup against the Hurricanes, the Blue Devils would have finished with the first 18-0 season in conference history.
Despite dominating in the conference with relative ease, Duke may not slice through the competition in Greensboro quite so easily.
The Blue Devils have a first-round bye before their first game against N.C. State, which defeated Clemson 56-45 in the first round. Duke beat the Wolfpack 67-57 this year in Raleigh.
The Blue Devils will face the winner of No. 4 Florida State (21-8, 11-7) and either No. 5 Miami or No. 12 Virginia Tech in its second game. Assuming the Hokies do not upset both the Hurricanes and the Seminoles, Duke will be faced with a tough opponent in the second round.
Miami obviously knows how to beat the Blue Devils, especially when they do not have Gray bringing the ball down the court. And Florida State played physically enough to hang in with Duke for almost all of 40 minutes of their game Feb. 22. If Duke makes it through the semifinals, it will most likely face either No. 2 Maryland (23-6, 14-4) or No. 3 North Carolina (26-5, 14-4). After beating the Tar Heels by 21 in Chapel Hill in early February, the Blue Devils only topped North Carolina by seven in their last game of the regular season.
The Terrapins are the best rebounding team in the nation, and will look to use their physicality to overpower Duke in a potential championship matchup. McCallie seems optimistic heading into the weekend especially after the hard-fought victory against the Tar Heels.
“I think what it does is give us great experience because it was a physical game,” McCallie said. “It mirrored games that could occur in tournament settings—very physical, very demanding. I think having that experience as a team was very important to us.”
But the Blue Devils have more improvements to make before heading into the ACC tournament and beyond.
“The areas of growth need to be in rebounding, particularly offensive rebounding, and defensively we need to be very effective in stopping go-to players,” McCallie said. “Offensively we need to cut turnovers way down and be a little bit more patient in allowing things to develop on offense. We need to control the ball a little bit more, meaning work it, pass it, play inside-out and really break down defenses and hopefully get some more transition opportunities as well.”
Duke’s biggest challenge will be continuing to learn how to play without Gray, a first-team All-ACC guard and the team’s top passer and court leader. The Blue Devils lost 12.6 points, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 steals when the junior guard went down with a discolated knee against Wake Forest. Duke has been inconsistent in its final four games without Gray.
Freshman point guard Alexis Jones has picked up most of the ball handling responsibility left behind by Gray and has stepped up to assume the role as floor general. The Irving, Texas native recorded 15 points and nine assists against the Terrapins at College Park and then earned the ACC Freshman of the Week award—for the second time this season—scoring a career-high 22 against North Carolina Sunday. Jones’ play will be essential to the Blue Devils’ success this weekend.
Also key will be junior guards Chloe Wells and Richa Jackson. Both have seen increased minutes since Gray’s injury, and both have shown their ability as scoring threats. Wells knocked down four 3-pointers and totaled 15 points in the Feb. 23 win against Florida State, and Jackson has averaged 7.3 points with Gray on the sidelines.
The inside duo of junior Haley Peters and sophomore Elizabeth Williams combine for 27.4 points and 14.4 rebounds a game. Both interior players will have to come up big against teams like Florida State and Maryland that constantly crash the offensive glass and convert second-chance attempts. Williams—another Blue Devil on the All-ACC first team—also serves as a defensive stopper in the paint, averaging 2.9 blocks per game, and is in the running for the Naismith Women’s College Player of the Year award.
Although the Blue Devils will be without one of their best players, they are in a good position to win all three of their potential games and head into the NCAA tournament riding the momentum of a regular season title and a tournament title within the ACC.
“It’s really about us bringing the energy, making that transition from the regular season which is very much a marathon,” McCallie said. “I think the regular season is by far the hardest to win, but I think the tournament’s a blast. I think it’s fun to win and we’ve had that experience, but its much more like a sprint, and so the idea for us is to play our game and work really hard to earn each game.