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Harding's presence adds punch to Duke lineup

It's unusual for a tournament MVP to finish with only eight points in 23 minutes in the championship game, but that was the case as Lindsey Harding was honored for her all-around effort and team-inspiring play in two games this weekend.

Despite taking a mere five shots in Duke's 69-37 win over Auburn Sunday, the junior point guard guided Duke's offense with a steady hand and sparked a furious defensive effort in the second half that allowed the Blue Devils to coast to an easy victory.

"I think she's the difference on this team from last year to this year," Auburn head coach Nell Fortner said. "She's just got great leadership abilities. She carries herself with so much confidence, she leads the team, and she doesn't make any mistakes."

Harding finished Sunday's game with seven assists and no turnovers. Two of the assists came in just eight second-half minutes in which Duke turned up its energy and pressed the Tigers in the backcourt. The Blue Devils ran away with the game during that stretch by going on a 22-0 run after Auburn had closed to within seven points early in the second half.

Harding catalyzed Duke's spurt with her effort in the middle of the press on defense. Just two minutes into the second half, Harding picked off a pass near half-court and fed it ahead to freshman guard Abby Waner for a layup.

Auburn managed to advance the ball past half court on the next possession, only to have Mistie Williams poke it away near the Tigers' bench. Harding picked up the loose ball, raced down court and finished the play with a tough left-handed layup while being fouled. She converted the ensuing free throw to put the Blue Devils up 14 only three possessions after Auburn had cut the lead to seven.

"You don't even realize how tiring it is to run back and forth on each play," Harding said. "We got really emotional at that point, and really excited and really just wanted the ball again and again and again. We love the press actually and that was the first time that we really had a team like [Auburn] this year, where we kept scoring over and over on the press. It's really a great feeling."

And her three steals Sunday do not even tell the whole story. All weekend, Harding was poking balls loose and making the hustle plays that do not appear in the stat sheet.

After missing a year, Harding looks comfortable running Duke's offense, too. In addition to her seven assists against Auburn, Harding scored 19 points on 9-for-12 shooting Saturday against Arkansas State.

"[It's] made my life easier," head coach Gail Goestenkors said Saturday of having Harding back. "She understands so much what I want and what I need from that point position. I think sitting out last year really helped her, hearing us on the sidelines, knowing what we wanted and what we expected."

Goestenkors started Harding alongside Abby Waner both games this weekend, giving the Blue Devils a much different look in the backcourt than last year when sophomore Wanisha Smith was forced to play the point. The combination of Harding and Waner gives Duke a set of guards with good ball-handling and quickness. With Smith and senior guard Jessica Foley coming off the bench, Goestenkors now has the ability to play 10 players and press much more.

"In order to utilize our bench, we need to play an up-tempo game," Goestenkors said. "It's very important to us. It's vital to what we want to be."

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