The women’s basketball team went to the Final Four with the slogan “Eight is Enough” in 2002, but tonight Duke may be playing with just seven.
The Blue Devils will be without suspended point guard Lindsey Harding and post player Chante Black, and they may be missing Wynter Whitley for the semifinals of the preseason WNIT tonight in South Bend, Ind. In a battle between two top-10 teams, No. 6 Duke will face No. 10 Notre Dame for a spot in this weekend’s final.
The Fighting Irish (2-0) have won 22 consecutive games at the Joyce Center and will provide an early season test for the thin Blue Devils lineup.
Black came down awkwardly on her right ankle while rebounding a ball in the closing minutes of Sunday’s game and did not travel with the team to South Bend. Whitley is questionable with a sore ankle that she suffered in the preseason, and she has played only eight minutes in the first two games.
Duke (2-0) beat unranked Davidson and the University of Southern Florida at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the first two rounds, but the absences have put a cloud of uncertainty over Wednesday night’s matchup.
Unlike Duke’s first two opponents, the Fighting Irish have strong players in the paint, including 6-foot-3 center Teresa Borton and 6-foot-5 freshman Melissa D’Amico.
With Mistie Williams, Monique Currie and Alison Bales, Duke has sufficient size to match Notre Dame on the block.
“I think their posts are huge. They are very talented inside,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “I do think the game will be won or lost on the boards.”
Duke struggled with offensive rebounding against the small lineups of the Wildcats and Bulls, and Black’s possible absence will only exacerbate the rebounding problem. Black—who played limited minutes in the season-opener after receiving stitches because of a collision with Jessica Foley—has still managed to haul in a team-leading 13.5 rebounds per game.
The Blue Devils’ rebounding woes have led to more scoring opportunities for their opponents, but head coach Gail Goestenkors is not worried about the Notre Dame post players.
“We compete against someone who is 6-foot-7 every day in practice, so hopefully it shouldn’t be a factor for us,” said Goestenkors of sophomore Alison Bales.
After sitting out most of last season for personal reasons, Whitley’s return to the court has been slowed by her ailing ankle. The senior was expected to provide a strong defensive presence in the post.
“She practiced with us a little bit [this week] and was able to play, but not at 100 percent,” Goestenkors said. “If she’s feeling good then we need her back, but we’re not going to rush her if she’s not ready.”
Freshman Wanisha Smith and Foley will continue to split time filling in for Harding at the point. Smith has been improving steadily, scoring 20 points and adding three assists in the USF game, her first start as a Blue Devil.
“As practices are continuing, I’m just learning, and I’m getting a lot more comfortable,” Smith said of the point guard role.
Notre Dame, which fell to Penn State in the Sweet 16 last season, returns All-Big East forward Jacqueline Batteast. The senior averaged 16.0 points and 8.6 rebounds per game a year ago.
“They’re an excellent team,” Goestenkors said. “I’ve watched film to be prepared, and [Batteast] is such an excellent player.”
When the Blue Devils step on the court, they will face a zone defense that mimics Duke’s own defensive style.
“They play a 2-3 zone 40 minutes a game as well, which is something we’ve been working on ourselves, so that’s something we should be very comfortable with,” Goestenkors said.
If Duke’s post players are not healthy enough to play, the team will have to rely heavily on its struggling perimeter game. Outside shooting was expected to be one of the Blue Devil’s strengths, but the wing players sputtered over the weekend, shooting 23 percent from three-point range on 35 attempts.
“This is the best group of shooters I’ve ever had so I have got to allow them to miss some shots because I know eventually they’re going to make those shots,” Goestenkors said.
If Duke beats Notre Dame tonight, the Blue Devils will have to play a pair of games over the weekend, further compounding the team’s depth problems. Duke plays Penn State Friday and would play the winner of the Ohio State-Arizona game in the WNIT finals Sunday, but the site has yet to be determined.
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