For Duke sophomore Azurá Stevens, Sunday’s marquee nonconference matchup will be one of both reunion and redemption, as she prepares to take the court against her Team USA U19 head coach and return the favor for a crushing loss last season.
Riding a five-game winning streak and a string of gritty defensive performances, the No. 14 Blue Devils will head south to battle No. 2 South Carolina Sunday at 2 p.m. at Colonial Life Area in Columbia, S.C. The Gamecocks overcame a four-point deficit in the final 20 seconds to sneak out of Durham with a 51-50 win last December, capitalizing on 22 Duke turnovers and a 12-4 run to start the second half to crawl back into a game that the Blue Devils looked to have in hand.
Stevens—who is averaging a double-double at 19.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game to lead Duke in both categories—brought home a gold medal from this summer's FIBA U19 World Championships in Russia. As a member of Team USA, the Raleigh native played alongside South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson with Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley at the helm, and the trio guided their team to a title, including a pair of wins against Blue Devil freshman Angela Salvadores and Team Spain.
“It was fun, she was a really good coach and I really learned a lot, just being under her experience,” Stevens said. “It’ll be fun to see her, but we’re ready to take [South Carolina] down.”
Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time WNBA All-Star, has seen a consistent level of improvement in both Wilson and Stevens, who each flourished as freshmen in their respective programs last year. Come Sunday afternoon, though, they will be on opposite sidelines and Stevens poses a danger to South Carolina's undefeated record.
“She is playing through contact,” Staley said. “She stands in place and she finishes through contact. She is welcoming it and using it to her favor, which is what you want [with regard to] all great players being able to make that adjustment.”
Since Staley’s move from Temple before the 2008-09 season, the Gamecocks (7-0) have steadily developed into one of the top programs in the country. South Carolina jumped into the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll for the first time in program history in 2014-15, finishing with a stellar 34-3 record including a perfect 15-0 slate at home on their way to the program's first Final Four appearance.
With a pair of early-season National Player of the Year candidates in Wilson and senior Tiffany Mitchell heading the charge, South Carolina's offense is a well-rounded machine, the likes of which Duke has not faced this season.
The 6-foot-5 Wilson will pose a tough matchup for the 6-foot-6 Stevens, as the South Carolina forward leads her team with 17.0 points per game and shoots nearly 55 percent from the field. The backcourt tandem of Mitchell and sophomore Bianca Cuevas provides help for Wilson from the perimeter—both guards are also averaging double-figure scoring, with Cuevas coming off the bench to add an extra spark for Staley's offense.
For a Blue Devil team that has limited its opponents to just 30.3 percent shooting from the field and 15 percent from downtown the last three games, the South Carolina firepower will bring a whole new challenge to the table come Sunday.
“To beat top talent, you have to be incredibly consistent,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “That’s the key—consistency. Performing every day or night against anybody, any place, anywhere…but beyond consistency, it’s a matter of will. There are talented players all across the country, but that doesn’t mean they all win.”
The Blue Devils will also experience an entirely new challenge in Columbia, as South Carolina fans have consistently packed the Colonial Life Area for big time games during the last few seasons. On Nov. 13, the Gamecocks defeated then-No. 10 Ohio State 88-80 in front of a crowd of 16,185. With such a young team playing in just its second true road contest of the season, Duke will have to be ready for a raucous environment.
“I’d rather be on the road, handle adversity, handle it with poise and really get after it,” McCallie said. “It’s this time of year to challenge ourselves, so we like our schedule and on any given day, if you stick together and execute, good things can happen.”
Both teams have been pushed by nationally ranked opposition so far this season, and Sunday’s game is expected to be similar to last year's—a tough, gritty battle that may come down to the final minutes. If Stevens can win the battle in the post and keep up with her former teammate Wilson, Duke will have a chance to notch a signature win. But to do so, the Blue Devils will need their young guards to handle the rough atmosphere and the steady Gamecock pressure to avoid turnovers that net South Carolina easy transition points. The Gamecocks feed off of opposing teams' giveaways, creating 16.7 turnovers per game.
Hank Tucker and Ryan Hoerger contributed reporting.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."