Many key contributors for Duke could only sit and watch as disappointing losses piled up this year, and that is how their season officially ended Monday.
Star forward Azurá Stevens sat and watched seven games during the heart of conference play with a partially torn plantar fascia as the Blue Devils endured four defeats. Redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell sat and watched with a back injury as top-seeded Notre Dame steamrolled Duke 83-54 in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
And the entire team sat and watched the NCAA tournament selection show Monday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, as the Blue Devils were left out of the 64-team field for the first time since 1994.
Duke will not participate in the Women's NIT due to the team’s lingering injury issues, with head coach Joanne P. McCallie confirming that Greenwell would not have been ready to play this weekend in the postseason.
“We’re very disappointed, especially for our seniors—for Mercedes [Riggs] and Amber [Henson]. Words can’t begin to describe how we feel for those two in particular,” McCallie said. “All we can do is learn from this and take action on it and keep Mercedes and Amber with us as we move forward to improve, to grow and to overcome some of these obstacles.”
The Blue Devils finish the year with a 20-12 record, the most losses they have tallied since going 12-15 in the 1992-93 season. They were 0-9 against opponents that are currently ranked, and their best win came in their season opener on the road at Pennsylvania, which is No. 27 in the RPI ratings and earned a No. 10 seed to the NCAA tournament after winning the Ivy League.
“Bottom line is that we didn’t get things done. We had a lot of opportunities all year to change and to project the philosophy that is taught here at Duke,” Riggs said. “We just didn’t have anyone step up to lead us in that direction, and that’s what we needed.”
The injury bug was not limited to Duke’s two stars—freshman guard Haley Gorecki and redshirt freshman Lyneé Belton both missed large chunks of the season with a fractured femur and a torn meniscus, respectively.
Henson took a leave of absence from mid-November until early January, and junior forward Kendall Cooper missed the majority of the season and did not enroll in classes for the spring semester. The Blue Devils’ depth—expected to be a valuable asset entering the year—became a liability very quickly.
“Injuries are always tough, but that’s never an excuse for anything because we still have a goal of what we’re trying to do and everyone should understand that,” Riggs said. “Injuries are never an excuse for why we didn’t do as well as we wanted to.”
Duke was 8-8 in ACC play—good for the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament—but the selection committee only chose five ACC teams to participate in the NCAA tournament. N.C. State, which beat Duke 65-62 at Cameron Indoor Stadium Jan. 14 and was thought to be safely in the field, was also excluded from the bracket.
This season is the first since 1988 that no team from the Triangle area will play in the NCAA tournament.
“I feel very disappointed for the ACC. I feel very disappointed for N.C. State. I feel very disappointed for Georgia Tech,” McCallie said. “I can’t speak to it. I wasn’t in the room, but it’s not good for the ACC.”
Everybody on the team except Riggs and Henson can return for next year, meaning the Blue Devils could retain 96 percent of the scoring from this year’s team. All-American Maryland transfer Lexie Brown will also be able to play in 2016-17, and Duke is also adding top-10 frontcourt recruit Leaonna Odom as an incoming freshman.
With five freshmen on the roster this year, more than half of next year’s team will be hungry to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a Duke uniform next season.
“It’s a big kick in the gut—definitely a lot of pain, especially given the season that we’ve had—but soon to turn to motivation,” McCallie said.