SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Technically, the No. 6 Duke women’s basketball team was upset by No. 10 Notre Dame Wednesday night in the preseason WNIT semifinals.
The loss, however, does not come as a huge surprise, as the team has been crippled not only by inexperience, but also by suspension and injury.
With the loss of two-time National Player of the Year Alana Beard and two-time ACC Tournament MVP Iciss Tillis, the season opened with holes at the guard and forward positions.
Now, with the indefinite suspension of Lindsey Harding, arguably the best point guard in the country, Duke has only a few remnants of last year’s squad.
Facing its first true test of the season, the makeshift Duke team failed. Yet, even for a squad that still has national championship aspirations, the loss was neither catastrophic nor unexpected.
“I think our inexperience showed,” head coach Gail Goestenkors said. “We’ve got a freshman point guard out there, Wanisha Smith, who is going to be very, very good, but it’s just tough on her [since] she has kind of been thrown into the fire.”
Smith scored 34 points and tallied eight assists during the season’s opening two games but was overwhelmed in Wednesday’s matchup, failing to score and turning the ball over twice in the first half.
Although Mistie Williams and Monique Currie returned this season as projected team leaders, each player was clearly overworked against a deep Notre Dame squad, playing 34 and 40 minutes, respectively. Goestenkors admitted she had to play them much more than she wanted to.
The final two starters, although returning varsity players, were thrust into a new level of responsibility against the Fighting Irish. Junior guard Jessica Foley, who averaged only 16.6 minutes last year, and sophomore post player Alison Bales, who played just under 10 minutes per game her freshman year, upped their game time to just under 30 minutes each. Even 6-foot-7 Bales filled in for Harding, occasionally handling the ball at the top of the key.
Bales was in a double squeeze last night. Not only did she spend time atop the key, but she also had too much rebounding duty without the help of 6-foot-5 Chante Black and the limited assistance of senior Wynter Whitley. Freshman Black averaged 13.5 rebounds per game in the opening two rounds of the WNIT before injuring her ankle in the closing minutes of Sunday’s game against Southern Florida. Whitley was also hindered by an ankle ailment that limited her to 15 minutes in Wednesday’s game.
Sure, you can blame the Blue Devils’ loss on their own faults—especially getting into the bonus with fouls with 13:06 remaining in the game and committing 13 turnovers in the second half. But for a newly formed lineup, it was an accomplishment to carry the game’s lead into the second half and to stay close behind a team that did not miss a three-pointer all game.
This season’s team was designed to have Harding run the offense. Smith has filled in valiantly, but as a freshman, she is not ready to lead a team to the NCAA Championship. The post game has dominant potential, but not with Black and Whitley on the bench. The team’s play in the paint, which has been sub-par with missed lay-ups, blocked shots and the simple inability to connect on a pass from outside the key can only get better with two more tall players in the mix.
Although Wednesday night’s loss was certainly a disappointment, it exposed the team’s weaknesses and leaves room for improvement, especially when Black and Whitley return from injury and Harding from her mysterious suspension.
“Sometimes when you win these kind of games and you make all these mistakes, you think you’re better than you are,” Goestenkors said. “But when you lose, you really scrutinize your mistakes and you learn from them more in a loss than a win.”
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