BOSTON - When Duke traveled to Boston in January to play ACC foe Boston College, the Blue Devils told each other they would be back.
Once they got back to Beantown, they told each other simply getting here was not good enough.
And now after trouncing LSU, 64-45, in the semifinals in Boston, Duke (31-3) has a chance to make good on its ultimate objective of winning the program's first National Championship when the Blue Devils play Maryland (33-4) tonight at 8:30 p.m.
"[We're] just excited to be playing for the National Championship," Duke head coach Gail Goestenkors said. "It feels good to be able to say that. It's been our goal all season long."
In the finals, Duke meets a Maryland team that it has beaten 14 of the last 15 times. That one loss, however, came in the teams' most recent meeting in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament.
The 78-70 loss in Greensboro-Duke's second defeat in three games-sent the Blue Devils back to Durham without playing for the ACC Title for the first time in six years. The loss served as a wake-up call to the team, and after two days off, Goestenkors turned up the intensity of her practices. The coach forced her squad to recommit to rebounding and playing tough defense to complement the nation's most prolific scoring offense.
The two weeks off before the start of the NCAA Tournament allowed ample time for Goestenkors' message to ring clear. Since opening up the Tournament March 19, Duke has been playing its best basketball of the season.
"Right now I think we're in a really good place," Goestenkors said. "Even before the game last night in the locker room while we were talking, you could just sense a very quiet confidence."
Duke may be acting like it has been here before because many of its players have. Three years ago with Alana Beard running the show, the Blue Devils reached the Final Four only to lose in the semifinals. The year before that, when fifth-year senior Monique Currie was just a freshman, Duke also made it to the final weekend but fell short of the last game.
It is not just postseason play in general that the Blue Devils are familiar with, though. Tuesday night's battle, which will be the first time in Tournament history that two ACC teams will meet for the National Championship, is the fourth game of the season between Duke and Maryland.
"It's an advantage because we know their tendencies," sophomore point guard Lindsey Harding said. "But it's also a disadvantage because they know yours. It's just all going to come down to who's more physical, who's stronger both physically and mentally."
During the March 4 loss, Maryland's frontcourt combination of Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper outworked Duke as the Terrapins out-rebounded the Blue Devils and made 13 more free throws. But in the two regular-season matchups, it was Duke that came out with wins, using its depth and balanced offensive attack to wear down Maryland's pressure defense.
"We've played Maryland three times this season, and they have played us tough each time," junior center Alison Bales said. "Everyone talks about how young they are, but they are talented and tough."
Langhorne, Harper, point guard Kristi Toliver and ACC Freshman of the Year Marissa Coleman lead Maryland's attack. Langhorne and Harper are both sophomores, while Toliver and Coleman are freshmen. Head coach Brenda Frese's young team plays a similar style to North Carolina-which Maryland beat Sunday-as the Terrapins press on defense and push the ball up the floor on offense.
Before the season, Frese's young group was regarded as talented but likely a year or two away from competing for the program's first National Championship. Duke, now in its second title game and fourth Final Four, has dealt with the expectations of winning one for several years.
"I feel like we're going to win it at some point," Goestenkors said. "We have established ourselves as one of the premier programs in the country. Winning that national title I think would just put a little exclamation point on it."
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