College basketball is a game played by those of great will and determination, of natural talent and carefully honed skills, of athleticism and grace. Yet, ultimately it is a game owned by those of a greater level, the select few-those teams that make themselves No. 1 and those players that make themselves champions.
This weekend Duke owned the game, proving that it is a No. 1 team, and Hilary Howard showed she owned the moment, proving that she is a champion.
With a pair of home routs over No. 11 Virginia (13-4, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) and No. 19 Clemson (15-4, 7-2) , the 24th-ranked Blue Devils (14-5, 7-2) completed perhaps the most impressive feat in Duke women's basketball history, knocking off three top-20 teams in three consecutive games over six days, placing the Devils in a three-way tie atop the ACC.
And the largest portion of the credit for the Blue Devils' stunning feat can be squarely placed on the shoulders of junior Hilary Howard. Against both Virginia and Clemson, Howard stormed out of the gates on fire, propelling Duke to 15-2 and 8-0 opening runs, setting the tone for a Duke attack that never trailed, leaving the opposing head coaches shocked on the bench and still stammering in the press conference.
"Tonight she killed us," Virginia coach Debbie Ryan said. "At halftime I had to try to find a player who was willing to play just her. We tried to come out in a box and one and just try some different things to try to stop her. She was just on fire tonight; she hit everything. She was just picking us apart."
And there's no doubt Ryan's search was a hard one. Howard exploded to the tune of 17 points in the first half of Duke's 93-66 romp over Virginia, knocking down a pair of free throws with four seconds remaining to cap off one of the best halves of Duke basketball this season.
"I thought [Howard] had the best first half that I have seen her play," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "It was tremendous. She's really playing with a lot of confidence now."
It was confidence she had and shots she was knocking down as Howard forged her best shooting night of her career, finishing with 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the floor including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc against the Cavaliers.
Sunday proved to be more of the same for Howard as she led Duke to a 78-59 shellacking of the Clemson Tigers, handing Clemson only its second conference loss of the season. Again Howard wasted no time making her mark, scoring on a driving layup on Duke's first possession 18 seconds into the game. She then pulled the Blue Devils away, posting 12 of her 14 total points in the first 8:13, singlehandedly outscoring the Tigers during that span, much to the chagrin of Clemson coach Jim Davis.
"[Howard] is in a zone," Davis said. "And its very comfortable there. We never rattled her. We never phased her. She was coming off those screens on the ball so much in control, scoping the floor with great vision. I just thought she was the difference in the basketball game, even though [Nicole] Erickson shot the lights out Howard sets the tone for that basketball team. "
And it has been Howard's ability to set the tone for Duke, which was notorious for slow starts and inconsistency earlier in the season, that was the largest factor in its weekend victories.
"[Howard's ability to start quickly] has been tremendous for us," Goestenkors said. "I feel like she is the heart and soul of our team, and when she starts off aggressively both offensively and defensively I feel our whole team does, whether or not she hits the shots or misses the shots. I feel like [Howard and back court mate Erickson] have really begun to take control of games early on, and its made all the difference in the world."
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And what has made all the difference in Howard's game has been a new-found confidence and aggressiveness. No longer content simply to monitor the Duke offense, Howard has molded herself into an attacking, aggressive player.
"[Earlier in the season] I wasn't being aggressive," Howard said. "And I just realized I wasn't an underclassman anymore, and I've just tried to make things happen-not necessarily looking for my shot, but just trying to attack the basket. The team is at our best when the guards are attacking, so I've just really been going into the games trying to make things happen for myself and my teammates."
However, according to Goestenkors, Howard's most important contribution to this team has been her leadership. Howard has set herself apart this weekend as the leader of a team that was often unbalanced and unsure of itself earlier in the season.
"We've got much greater leadership now," Goestenkors said. "Hilary Howard's doing a great job leading for us. Early on I think she was kind of still waiting for somebody else to take over, thinking that Kira Orr might be around. We figured out Kira Orr isn't here, and she has stepped into that position and is doing a tremendous job leading this team, and when we start to have a little lull she is able to get on the team and they respond very well to her. I think she knew she needed to step up for our team to step up."
And it's not just Howard's own coach who has taken notice of her drastic improvements.
"She's really developed into a really fine guard in this league," Ryan said. "I've been watching her for three years, and she's made a huge step from last year to this year-forward. I was very impressed with her performance tonight, and I've been impressed all year. She's really having a terrific year."
There is no doubt this is now a team brimming with confidence, with a definite leader it believes in and a leader who believes in her team, a combination that will make Duke tough to stop in upcoming games in the ACC and beyond.
"We've got a lot of potential," Howard said. "And the way we've been playing the last couple of weeks, we can play with anyone in the country."