After missing the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in 22 years, Duke has regained its status as a top-tier program this season and did more than enough to hear its name called during Monday's selection show.
Coming off a run to the ACC championship game last weekend, the Blue Devils were awarded a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament's Bridgeport, Conn., regional and will host the first two rounds this weekend at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where they are 16-0 this year. Duke will open play against No. 15 seed Hampton Saturday at 9 p.m. and will face either No. 7 seed Temple or No. 10 seed Oregon in the second round with a win.
The Blue Devils' road to the Final Four will potentially go through No. 1 overall seed Connecticut and third-seeded Maryland in the regionals in two weeks. The Huskies have won an NCAA-record 107 straight games and four straight national championships. Connecticut has won eight in a row against the Blue Devils in the last 10 years, all by at least 15 points, but the two teams have not met since Dec. 29, 2014.
"It’s a tough region. I think it’s definitely the toughest one out of the entire bracket," point guard Lexie Brown said. "It’s very interesting that the selection show organized it the way they did, but we’re just really excited."
If the Terrapins see head coach Joanne P. McCallie's team in the Sweet 16, they will likely have extra motivation since Brown transferred from Maryland following the 2014-15 season. The Blue Devils' best player earned first-team All-ACC accolades this season.
"The beginning of the year, I remember saying, ‘Mom, what if we end up matching up with Maryland?’" Brown said. "The only way I would ever see Maryland again is in the tournament, and the fact that this is how it has played out, the success that we’ve had and that they’ve had this season, I think it would be a really fun matchup."
A deep run in the tournament this year seemed far-fetched with Duke unranked preseason and stumbling to a road loss at unranked Vanderbilt Nov. 20, but the Blue Devils quickly showed off their potential with a string of big wins in December. Duke took down then-No. 3 South Carolina and then-No. 17 Kentucky before defeating then-No. 8 Louisville in its ACC opener in early January, all in the span of a month.
The win against the Gamecocks propelled the Blue Devils into the top 25 for the first time since midway through last season and snapped a streak of eight straight losses against ranked opponents dating back to an NCAA tournament win against Mississippi State two years ago.
After three road losses to ranked ACC foes in January, Duke finished the regular season with eight straight wins to move into a tie for second in the conference. The Blue Devils beat Miami and Syracuse for their first two victories against ranked teams away from home in two years to reach the finals of the ACC tournament, but faded in the second half of an 84-61 loss against Notre Dame.
The primary difference for this Duke team has been the addition of Brown, who has been a calm facilitator and an elite scoring option the offense can count on in crunch time.
Averaging 18.3 points per game and notching 2.8 steals per game, both team highs, the point guard and co-captain earned ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors this year. Brown shot 92.2 percent from the line and set an ACC record with 56 consecutive made free throws, adding consistency and scoring to a team that transitioned from a post-oriented group led by Azurá Stevens last season to a guard-heavy squad.
Brown has the most NCAA tournament experience on the team from her two years with the Terrapins, who made a Final Four appearance with Brown starring two years ago.
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"Lexie understands how to take it one game at a time. Anytime you make it to the Final Four you understand that principle very well," McCallie said. "I definitely think that she can help her team focus and let them know the battle that it is because it’s definitely a winners' tournament. All these teams are very good and you’ve got to be ready to play.”
Redshirt junior Rebecca Greenwell has thrived as the secondary scoring option on the wing, averaging 16.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. The Owensboro, Ky., native leads the team in 3-point attempts and field goals made, benefitting from the attention Brown attracts, and was also a first-team All-ACC selection.
Greenwell and Brown are one of the most potent duos in the nation, and Duke's supporting cast has fed off of this success. Sophomore Kyra Lambert has been a steady ball-handler with the fewest turnovers per game among the Blue Devils' starting backcourt, and Kendall Cooper and Oderah Chidom have both been effective in the paint with versatile freshman forward Leaonna Odom also entering the fold as a starter for the second half of the year.
The Blue Devils will need to stay fresh without a game for nearly two whole weeks before the tournament begins, and will hope their suffocating matchup zone defense and talent on the wing carries them to a few more wins in March.
"We play really hard and there is so much love for each other on this team, and especially with the way the bracket is laid out, I think it’s going to give us a little more to play for," Brown said. "Everybody’s record is 0-0. Everyone’s refreshed.... You’ve got to play with all the confidence in the world because everyone is playing for the same championship now.”