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Abby Waner adapting to unfamiliar territory

Abby Waner could hardly remember the last time she watched the opening tip for one of her games from the bench.

Before arriving at Duke last fall, the freshman guard was accustomed to dominating on every level. From high school varsity to AAU to various teams within the U.S. national program, Waner was always a team leader. During her senior year at Thunder Ridge High School in Colorado, Waner led her squad to its third consecutive state championship and took home every major national player of the year award.

It would only make sense, then, that Waner would not immediately recall the last time she was not in the starting lineup on a regular basis.

"Probably like when I was in eighth grade, playing on an older club team," she said, after thinking about it for several moments.

Playing with older girls again this year at Duke, Waner has been asked to assume the role of a complementary player on a team primed to make a run at the Final Four.

Waner started 15 of her first 16 games as a Blue Devil, but as league play began in early January, the freshman began to slump. Waner was held scoreless in games against Maryland and Boston College on consecutive weekends while sophomore guard Wanisha Smith was lighting it up coming off the bench.

Head coach Gail Goestenkors had stressed from the beginning of the season that her starting lineup would be flexible in order to foster greater intra-team competition. Before the Blue Devils played at Holy Cross Jan. 16, she made the decision to replace Waner with Smith in the starting lineup.

Waner has not started a game since, but she is usually the first player to substitute in for Duke and is averaging 7.8 points in a little less than 20 minutes per game off the bench.

"It's been hard for Abby because she's always started and played every minute of every game," Goestenkors said. "She's been more than willing to do whatever is necessary for the team."

Waner said the move was "tough" for her, but she also has had plenty of support. Abby's older sister Emily made the transition to Duke last year, transferring from Colorado after her spending her freshman year there. Abby said her sister's first-year experiences at two different schools has helped her deal with her own up-and-down freshman campaign at Duke.

But it has not only been family there to encourage Abby Waner during tough times. Smith started most of last season, but Goestenkors had jettisoned her from the lineup in favor of Waner in November. All the while, Smith has been positive, Waner said.

"I think that says a lot about [Smith] that when I was starting she was always the first one, when I came off, to give me a bit of advice or tell me 'great play,'" Waner said. "We were battling for a spot, but she was always there for me."

When the switch occurred in January, it served as an opportunity for Waner to refocus. She said she had been putting a lot of pressure on herself, which may have contributed to her two scoreless performances.

"I think after Maryland and Boston College I was pretty upset because I knew I wasn't playing like I could-I knew I wasn't helping our team," Waner said. "There are times when you do get down and you have to be mentally tough. Nobody's here to baby you. It's difficult but I think that's what makes you grow as a person-to be able to pull yourself out of these slumps."

After the Boston College game, Waner did just that. Coming off the bench at Holy Cross, Waner led the Blue Devils in scoring with 17 points.

A week later, then-No. 2 Duke took on Tennessee, which was top-ranked at the time, in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Waner had one of her best all-around games of the season, scoring 10 points including two huge three-pointers in the second half to help push Duke to victory.

"That was one of the greatest feelings I've ever had playing basketball," Waner said. "I felt good about the way I played because I contributed to the team. I don't care how much I score, just as long as I feel like I helped the team when we needed it."

With 13 contributing scholarship players on Duke's roster, the Blue Devils have stressed a team-first attitude throughout the season. Nearly everyone on Goestenkors' squad has been asked to sacrifice. Senior forward Monique Currie, a first team All-American last year, has seen her minutes cut drastically and Smith was forced to the bench for most of the non-conference season before taking Waner's spot.

"They knew there were going to be sacrifices when they came in here," assistant coach Tia Jackson said. "There are sacrifices that have to be made and I think [the players] are understanding them and embracing them."

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