Watching Duke play this season, it's obvious that something is different. The offense runs more fluidly than last year. The defense provides a little more pressure, too.
Lindsey Harding, the Blue Devils' starting point guard and proverbial coach on the floor, has brought a new level of energy to Duke this season that was missing a year ago.
At the beginning of last season, Harding made a mistake. Soon before the first game of the preseason, the junior was suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules. Eventually, the coaching staff determined that she should sit out the entire season.
Instead of sulking selfishly, however, she did exactly what a point guard should do-put her teammates ahead of herself. And the support was reciprocated.
"They carried me through," Harding said of her teammates. "I went through a lot of personal things last year that Coach helped me through.... I didn't think about me, I thought about everyone else-on the court, what can I do to make everyone better and off the court, what I can do to make everyone better."
Although she could not see game action last season, Harding still did everything she could to improve her game. Instead of playing during games, Harding sat next to head coach Gail Goestenkors and absorbed every nugget of knowledge she could glean from Duke's coaching staff.
"It really helped her last year sitting on the bench, listening to us as coaches and what we wanted and what we needed," Goestenkors said. "She knows all the plays, she knows now what I expect and when I expect it because she's been with me so long.
"I'm almost always harder on my point guards than anybody else because they have so much responsibility and because I expect so much from them."
Judging from the team's results this season, Harding has done an impressive job in making the whole team better. She has helped lead the No. 2 Blue Devils to a 25-2 record, averaging 10.6 points, 4.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game. In recognition of her play, she was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year and second-team All-ACC earlier this week.
But statistics and accolades do not encompass everything the Houston native has brought to the court. The intangibles she adds are her most significant attribute, several of her teammates said.
"Lindsey's a great leader," senior Monique Currie said. "She really takes control of the team. Her position is the most important position on the court."
Last season, the lack of a reliable point guard hurt the Blue Devils. Wanisha Smith, then a freshman, was thrust into the starting point guard slot on one of the nation's top teams. At times, she struggled, both defensively and offensively.
A natural off-guard, Smith never fully understood how to run the offense as a pass-first, score-second point guard like Goestenkors requires. Smith turned the ball over 134 times while dishing out 154 assists.
But Smith grew in her role in Harding's absence, which was apparent earlier this season as well. Against Maryland Feb. 13, Harding hurt her shoulder diving for a ball and was forced to sit out the rest of the game. Smith took over running the offense and excelled, leading the Blue Devils to a 90-80 victory over then-No. 4 Maryland.
"I knew [last year] was a great experience for everybody," Harding said. "When I hurt my shoulder in the Maryland game, Wanisha stepped up and took control and played the point guard position. That came from the experience of last year."
Looking forward, Harding said she believes the team is better because of her absence last season, but she hasn't quit trying to improve her team either. With a new crop of freshmen in Durham this season, she has taken on the responsibility of mentoring them, much as she did for Smith.
Freshman point guard Abby Waner has been the focus of much of her attention this year.
"You have to have somebody like Lindsey...in order to be a better leader yourself," Waner said. "She's so much fun to play with. But not only that, I know that I'm becoming better because of her, watching her leadership and how she handles our team."
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