Duke guard Rebecca Greenwell grew up less than three hours away from Lexington, Ky., and though Sunday's showdown with unbeaten No. 8 Kentucky will not be her first time traveling to Rupp Arena as a Blue Devil, it will be her first time taking the court.
With yet another talented Wildcat team on the horizon, the No. 13 Blue Devils will need a second consecutive strong performance from Greenwell Sunday at 7 p.m. Duke beat the Wildcats in Lexington two seasons ago in a matchup of top-five teams, but Greenwell was unable to participate while she redshirted and recovered from a knee injury.
“I’m really looking to that game, especially not being able to play my freshman year, so I know what the environment’s like,” Greenwell said after Thursday's win against Liberty. “I know a lot of my friends and family will be there, so it should be fun.”
The Owensboro, Ky., native registered 13 points in victories against teams hailing from the Bluegrass State last season—Louisville and Kentucky—but both games were played in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke emerged with a win in Lexington in 2013 because of the poise of its four seniors, but Greenwell and junior Oderah Chidom are the only members of the current Blue Devil squad who experienced the raucous atmosphere created by the 23,706 fans on hand.
If the Blue Devils (9-2) want to prevail once again in one of the nation's most intimidating environments, they will need a second straight dynamic performance from their redshirt sophomore sharp-shooter.
Greenwell poured in a career-high 26 points against the Lady Flames Thursday, finishing from all over the court. The 6-foot-1 guard hit 4-of-8 attempts from downtown and finished an efficient 9-of-18 from the floor, all while adding eight rebounds, two assists and four steals. Greenwell has stressed her desire to become more than just a 3-point specialist, and her improvement on the glass has shown the fruits of her labor.
Averaging 4.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, Greenwell has become a defensive force for the Blue Devils. Head coach Joanne P. McCallie praised both Greenwell and redshirt freshman forward Lyneé Belton Thursday for their work on the glass, and the Blue Devils will have to crash the glass hard Sunday, for a number of reasons.
The Wildcats (9-0) boast 6-foot-3 forward Evelyn Akhator, who grabs 10.6 rebounds per game. More importantly, in Duke’s two losses—both to top-15 opponents—it has lost the rebounding battle by an average of six rebounds and has outrebounded opponents by nearly 14 rebounds in its nine victories. Sophomore Azurá Stevens leads the Blue Devils with 9.6 rebounds per game, but Duke will need to put forth a team effort on the boards.
Duke will also be without junior Kendall Cooper after the program announced that the forward would not enroll in classes in the spring and will miss the rest of the season. Cooper—who averaged 3.6 points and 3.7 rebounds per game—did not make the trip to Lexington, and her lost production and interior presence will shift responsibility to Chidom, Belton and sophomore Erin Mathias in the post.
On the perimeter, Kentucky’s backcourt tandem of Makayla Epps and Janee Thompson have combined to average 31.1 points per game, providing another stiff test for Greenwell and freshmen point guards Kyra Lambert and Angela Salvadores. Despite her small stature at 5-foot-10, Epps averages 5.5 rebounds per game for the Wildcats. An in-state recruit, Epps previously teamed with Greenwell to play for a Kentucky junior all-star team.
The Blue Devils and the Wildcats are two of the top defensive teams in the nation, and points could be hard to come by Sunday. The 6-foot-6 Stevens will have a size advantage down low against Akhator, but Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell is an expert at getting his team to clog the paint, meaning Stevens will not have much room to operate freely.
With defenses keying on Stevens, the onus falls on Greenwell to hurt teams from the perimeter. After shooting 5-of-8 from the field last season against the Wildcats, the redshirt sophomore should have her opportunities to make a mark on the game. Greenwell plays a team-leading 32.6 minutes per game and can use her size and versatility to play a variety of positions that could prove valuable against a quick Kentucky lineup.
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"It’s a game by game thing, but I definitely believe in getting the most out of your team and really being able to allow the players to play and use their skills to the greatest advantage,” McCallie said Thursday. “If that means four guards in one particular game and one post, so be it. If that means three posts and two guards—whatever works."
Greenwell will also get an opportunity to play in front of familiar faces Jan. 10 when the Blue Devils battle Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center.
Hank Tucker contributed reporting.