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Duke climbs to No. 1 with Harding out

Most Duke students swiftly departed campus after final exams for a month of unwinding. The women"s basketball team used its time off more productively than the majority of the student body, tallying 13 consecutive victories dating back to mid-November on their way to earning the No.1 ranking.

'It doesn"t matter,' head coach Gail Goestenkors said. 'We"ve been No. 1 the past several years in the polls and it really hasn"t helped us. We didn"t finish No. 1. We know all too well that being ranked No. 1 doesn"t matter at all.'

While Duke (15-1, 1-0 in the ACC) was winning every time it took the floor, higher-ranked teams could not shake off the upset bug. Most recently, previously top-ranked LSU lost to red-hot Rutgers last week. Although Duke"s new ranking may have little to do with what could happen in March, it does recognize the Blue Devils" dominant play over the past month and leaves the team in prime position as it begins conference play.

'We have a lot of things to work on and improve on still, but I think we"re where we want to be right now,' Goestenkors said. 'I think we"ve played some incredible competition, and I think we"ve done really well, considering our youth and considering that we have a freshman out there at point guard. I feel like we"re in a good place right now, and we also see that there is so much room for improvement so it"s exciting to think about where we can be in another month or two.'

Down to only eight active players, the Blue Devils will rely on their freshmen more than ever in the coming weeks. The team announced Tuesday that junior point guard Lindsey Harding will be suspended for the remainder of the season because of a violation of team rules.

'Once again, I apologize and feel like I let down myself, my team, my coaches and Duke University,' Harding said in a statement. 'This has been a very difficult time and I appreciate all the support everyone has given me. I will continue to work very hard in practice, in the classroom and look forward to playing again next season.'

Goestenkors said that Harding will continue practicing with the team and provide leadership from the sidelines. Harding will travel with the team when it does not conflict with her class schedule.

The Blue Devils are already without Caitlin Howe, who is having surgery to remove a bothersome staple remaining from a previous knee operation. Since Howe arrived at Duke she has been riddled with knee injuries that began in high school. She will be out for six to eight weeks and may be available for the NCAA Tournament.

'We"ve faced adversity in the past and we have a great coaching staff, so I knew they would get things going,' junior Monique Currie said. 'We have a great team, and we just work with what we have. We"ve come a long way, and I think we"ll continue to get better.'

Freshman Laura Kurz, who was emerging as a dangerous scoring threat even before Howe"s injury, will be expected to pick up even more of the slack now.

Against Holy Cross Jan. 4, Kurz did just that, hitting her first four three-pointers and finishing with 15 points as Duke routed the Crusaders 101-42. Currie continued her stellar play with 21 points and sophomore center Alison Bales controlled the paint with 14 points and eight rebounds.

The rotation of Bales along with Mistie Williams and reserves Wynter Whitley and Chante Black has formed an imposing front line.

'I think we worked a lot on it,' Bales said of the team"s physical play. 'Our [male practice players] played pretty physical with us in practice, and we worked on a lot of different things, but that was definitely a focus for us.'

The Blue Devils had plenty of time over the past month to work on what they needed. After finishing exams, Duke trounced Liberty 83-48 and Jacksonville State 99-36 at home in games that were close for not much more than a blink of an eye.

The Blue Devils then headed to the Indiana to for a pair of contests. The team started slowly against Purdue but was able to pull away behind the hot hand of Kurz and a strong game from Currie.

After a brief hiccup against Purdue, Duke returned to form two days later against Ball State. The final score was 81-31, which included a 35-1 run to close out the first half. The Blue Devils stayed focused throughout the game despite knowing that an eight-day Christmas vacation was in order when the clock expired. Bales had a career-high eight blocks on the night.

The team reconvened on Dec. 29 for the first round of the Auburn Christmas Tournament. Duke captured the tournament title two days later after beating Rhode Island 89-63 in the opener and then Auburn 80-61 on New Years Eve.

With conference play already underway after Duke"s defeat of No. 25 Virginia Tech Sunday and with the added honor of the No. 1 ranking, the Blue Devils feel like they are prepared to deal with a more talented ACC this year. When the other two ranked teams in the conference, No. 9 North Carolina and No. 17 Maryland, faced off Jan. 9, Maryland pulled off a minor upset in College Park.

'It"s definitely exciting to get into conference play now,' Bales said.

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