Last season, Duke was just six seconds away from clinching the program's first National Championship.
Maryland's Kristi Toliver's shocking three-pointer in the last seconds, however, sent the game into overtime. The Terrapins sealed their second-half comeback with a 78-75 overtime victory to send the Blue Devils home devastated and empty-handed.
This season, No. 6 Duke may have rebuilt and moved on from last year's heartbreak, but the returning Blue Devils have not forgotten. Instead, they are funneling their disappointment into motivation.
"It definitely gives us an edge because we lost something in the last couple seconds, and that's definitely carried over to the mentality this year that we don't want to let that happen again," sophomore Abby Waner said. "It's an unsettling feeling and we're not just going to be complacent with getting second place."
Despite the experience of three veteran starters-Lindsey Harding, Alison Bales and Wanisha Smith-and nine returning letter winners, Duke fields a relatively young team. Combined with the loss of powerhouse and go-to player Monique Currie-along with Jessica Foley and Mistie Williams-the Blue Devils have some big shoes to fill.
With the graudation of these key players, younger Blue Devils will have the opportunity to take on pivotal roles this season.
"Nobody's going to take their place, but other people are beginning to step up," head coach Gail Goestenkors said. "Now I really need to help these younger players along, because it's time for a new group of players to really step forward and take control."
Not only did Currie and Williams pace the Blue Devils in many statistical categories, but they were also the team's emotional backbone. This season, Duke is also looking for increased leadership from senior captains Harding and Bales.
Harding-who was named the 2006 ACC Defensive Player of the Year-will continue to be a tenacious defensive force in the backcourt. Recently named to the preseason All-ACC team, Harding will also need to be an offensive threat from the point or wing positions for the Blue Devils.
Last March in the NCAA Tournament, Bales broke out and showed the nation what she was capable of. In the title game, Bales scored a double-double with 19 points and 12 rebounds-her second of the postseason-while surpassing the NCAA Tournament record with her 30th block of the postseason. With blocking as her forté on defense and an offensive style of play capitalizing on high-low post combinations with fellow center Chante Black, 6-foot-7 Bales will be an intricate part of the Blue Devils' game.
"We're still going to look to push the ball, but we're going to be very post-oriented when we have our big lineup, with Alison Bales and Chante Black," Goestenkors said. "There's not another post combination in the country with that kind of size, so we certainly want to take advantage of it. I think we've been very guard-oriented over the past several years, and now I think one of our greatest strengths is our post play."
Duke enters the season with high expectations for guards Harding, Waner and Smith in the backcourt as well. The three guards will most likely all share minutes at the point and the wings, creating a strong, versatile perimeter game for the Blue Devils.
"We're counting on both [Waner and Smith] to play major minutes for us," Goestenkors said. "With what we're looking at initially with Lindsey, Abby, and Wanisha-all three of them have played point and all three of them have played the wing position."
The Blue Devils, who dropped to No. 6 this year compared to last year's preseason No. 1 ranking, will have the opportunity to develop new star players and enter the season without a No. 1 ranking hanging over their heads.
"I think that the pressure has been taken off a little bit," Abby Waner said. "We lost last year and because we did, there are some doubts about us. Whether that's good or bad, I think that's going to give us a little bit of an opening this year.. It'll be interesting to see how it all folds out."
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