When faced with a catastrophic injury to one of her players, head coach Joanne P. McCallie often likens a team moving on to starting the season anew. By that logic, the Duke squad that takes the floor Saturday to open the NCAA tournament will be the third that McCallie has coached this season.
Season-ending injuries to point guards Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones have forced this year's Blue Devils to reinvent themselves in the midst of one of the most challenging conference schedules in ACC history. And each time, after initial growing pains, the new Duke team filled the voids left by lost talent with added toughness, determination and perseverance.
The Blue Devils began the year with a roster of 15 players. Duke's arsenal of available, healthy players has been whittled down to just nine in the course of five months due to a slew of injuries, transfers and dismissals.
Adversity has become a way of life for the Blue Devils. Although Duke did not check off many of its usual accolades on its way to a No. 2 seed in this year's Big Dance, McCallie said her group has shown her something more profound than an extra tally in the win column.
"We didn’t win the ACC tournament, which we have in the past, we didn’t win the regular season, but at the same time it may be the most storied year in terms of the team coming together that I’ve ever experienced," she said. "[We are] learning how to bring the best out of each other, and they certainly have all made me a better coach every step of the way."
It was not an easy end to the team’s previous two seasons this year.
One major element to the Blue Devils’ early-season success—including a 9-0 start—was the play of Gray, the team's senior point guard and two-time All-American. After missing the back end of the 2012-13 season with a knee injury, Gray was averaging 10.8 points and 7.2 assists per game in her first 17 contests.
In that 17th game, a Sunday afternoon tilt with Boston College, Gray left the game late in the first half with what the Duke coaching staff called a bruised thigh. But then the unthinkable happened—further examination showed that Gray had a fractured kneecap and would miss the rest of her final season at Duke.
McCallie refused to make excuses for her team even though the Blue Devils had close calls in road games against ACC bottom-feeders Miami and Virginia Tech, where Gray's presence was sorely missed. The Duke head coach felt that her team had to push forward, starting over as if the next game were the start of a new season.
Just as they had a year before, the Blue Devils had to adjust to life without one of the nation's most dynamic guards. Sophomore Alexis Jones handled the point-guard duties and senior Richa Jackson transitioned seamlessly into a starting role.
Duke responded by winning eight of its next 10 games, including three victories against ranked opponents. The new-look Blue Devils were just beginning to find their stride when they lost their primary ball-handler for the second time in six weeks.
Jones suffered a torn ACL in a road loss to Notre Dame Feb. 23, leaving the team with a void in the backcourt that this time was more difficult to fill. However, with just four days until its next game, Duke knew it could not be defined by Jones’ absence.
It was time to start over again.
“When we found out that [Jones] was done for the season, it was pretty quick how everybody got on the same page,” Peters said. “Everybody understood what people would say about us and what our response to that should be.”
Although the team faced what many believed were insurmountable odds, Peters and the remaining Blue Devils drew on last year’s experience of losing Gray late in the season to confront the questions surrounding whether Duke could still be a contender.
“The mental piece of it was important,” Peters said. “Knowing that there really is not too much... that we cannot adapt to, because we have so many great players and are always ready to step in and produce. We have dealt with that adversity. There was never a second where anybody in the program thought that we would not still be a really good team.”
The team went to work adapting to life without their star point guard for the second time this season, giving junior Ka’lia Johnson her first starting role in the backcourt and even starting three post players, with a big increase in minutes for freshman forward Oderah Chidom.
Despite the loss of their two top backcourt options, the Blue Devils battled then-No. 14 North Carolina and fell just four points short. Duke would later blow past the Tar Heels on its way an appearance in the ACC tournament championship game.
Playing with a chip on its shoulders, the team proved that it could still play high-quality basketball.
“What this group has learned is that sometimes things do not happen the way you want them to,” McCallie said. "Sometimes there is not a glorious finish with everyone doing great and healthy. We have learned a lot about the realities of sometimes the way things can be. I think this group is very good at staying in the moment.”
When Duke fell to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament title game, the team could have used its injuries as an excuse for its third loss to the Fighting Irish this season. It could have let the media tear its Final Four hopes apart.
Instead, Duke has proved that its postseason chances are alive and well. Peters said that she could not remember a time during the past four years when her team executed better than it has these past few weeks.
There are six games Duke needs to win to cut down the nets in Nashville. Regardless of the skeptics, the Blue Devils prepare to take the court and play with the belief that they can still reach that ultimate goal.
“We have all had it in us, but I think going through this again, it gets to the point where you have your back against the wall where you have to decide whether you are just going to cave or change and be the team that you want to be,” Peters said.