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How Erin Mathias worked her way into a key starting role for Duke women's basketball

Erin Mathias has started every game and is averaging close to double figures in scoring this season.
Erin Mathias has started every game and is averaging close to double figures in scoring this season.

For some players, the rise to prominence in college basketball can only be seen on game day. But for Duke’s lone four-year senior, the path taken was atypical.

Before Erin Mathias even stepped foot in high school, she had received high praise, even being compared to the top recruit to enter college in 2008 and eventual WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne. According to Mathias’ recruiting profile, the forward from Pittsburgh was thought to have a similar skill set, which Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie took notice of quite early in the recruiting process.

“Knowing that she wanted to come to Duke, she verbally committed essentially her freshman year, so she’s someone who is taking care of the academics,” McCallie said. “She has come to Duke and has gotten better every single year and taken advantage even when she was coming off the bench. Not whining, being a team player and learning how to get better to be in the spot that she is in now.”

Mathias’ athleticism was never questioned and neither was her ability to put the ball in the basket. But something was missing from her game that has allowed the senior to put herself in the starting position she currently holds.

“She is just so much more confident out there on the floor. She doesn’t let little things get to her like they used to. If she makes a mistake, she bounces back so much faster,” Blue Devil graduate student Lexie Brown said. “From A to Z, everything about Erin has been so much better. But just her confidence, that’s what leading the way.”

Couple the newfound confidence with a greater opportunity, and McCallie is left with a multifaceted player who can spread the floor on every possession. With the graduations of 6-foot-4 forwards Oderah Chidom and Kendall Cooper last spring, frontcourt minutes opened up as the spring rolled into summer.

“I’m one of the only senior post players, so I knew I had to be a big presence vocally as well as far as numbers go, so the Italy trip definitely helped with that aspect,” Mathias said. “Building that confidence and sort of realizing this has to be my year to kind of step up.”

Balancing two dreams

The confidence that once plagued the Pittsburgh native was augmented by way of a passion that came full circle before the season even began. In front of the Duke Chapel on Sept. 28, 2017, Mathias combined her passion for fashion with her belonging on the team in a fashion show that included many onlookers, including a surprise appearance from her parents. The show’s models included some of her teammates, practice players as well as other student-athletes. 

“I think she’s seeing her future coming together. She had her internship in New York. She made that fashion line. We were all so supportive of that,” Brown said. “She’s just blossoming into an amazing young woman on the court and off the court.”

What makes Mathias’ rise even more striking is the fact that she did not compromise her love of clothing design to fulfill her dream to play at the highest level of college basketball. Mathias took the beginning of her summer after her sophomore season and spent time working with designer Charles Harbison, where she worked on an outfit for Beyoncé.

“It was a great experience.… I came back for second summer session, worked on basketball and school,” Mathias said. “I have to make some sacrifices as far as not being able to go home and spend time with family, but being able to do all these other cool things.”

Mathias, a visual and media arts studies major, has mastered her time management with fashion design as she takes classes in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate program while also becoming a force on the hardwood. 

“They go hand in hand. A lot of people think basketball and everything else is so separate,” Brown said. “It’s intertwined, and things that you do off the court definitely impact how you perform on the court.”

Confidence carrying over

The other cool things, as the senior described, have given her more confidence on the court, which has translated to a high level of play in her final year of eligibility.

“It was funny. I was talking to someone… about how just my confidence when it comes to fashion design has absolutely carried over onto the court,” Mathias said. “It’s been really cool to see the two areas play together.”

On the court, Mathias has seen her all-around game translate to one of the largest scoring increases among seniors in the ACC. This season, the senior has contributed 9.0 points per game, which is a 5.1-point increase over last year’s average of 3.9 points. With respect to the other seniors in the ACC, Mathias ranks second in terms of improvement in the offseason. N.C. State’s forward Akela Maize has increased her scoring to 10.3 points, a 7.2-point jump, for the top spot.

“Erin just keeps working hard. She’s got a great work ethic, great spirit and attitude about things and we just felt very strongly that she was just going to keep improving. That’s exactly what she’s done,” McCallie said. “Her productivity is a factor of her just playing the game. Staying technical, remembering certain things she’s supposed to do out there, taking full advantage.”

Hard work, as it often does, pays off in the end, and Mathias is no exception. With more minutes to be had given a lack of experienced frontcourt players, the senior has shown more of her game than previous years.

More than halfway through the season, McCallie has utilized seven different starting lineups, all of which included Mathias. But the variation has allowed Mathias to expand her game from merely a low post player. The lineup changes began when McCallie replaced freshman Mikayla Boykin with graduate student Bego Faz Davalos. The change allowed Mathias to play the power forward position, where she could step away from the basket.

With an injury-riddled season beginning thereafter, Mathias has started six games alongside either Davalos or freshman Jade Williams. This lineup switch has displayed something that was lacking in recent years.

“I’ve been pretty accurate with my jump shot. I don’t think it just started out of nowhere. It’s not like, ‘Surprise, Erin can sort of shoot,’” Mathias said. “Just continuously working on it in practice and getting shots up after practice and before practice.”

From her high school days, Mathias has been able to knock down jumpers on a consistent basis. When describing Mathias, McCallie highlighted her athleticism and versatility.

“Just her diversity of her game and her aggressiveness around the paint helps tremendously because paint points are so important,” McCallie said. “She doesn’t always have to make a shot, just being a threat and being aggressive. She’s been making shots and being a threat all the time.”

Often times, when a player steps away from the interior, her shots become more difficult, leading to a dwindling shooting percentage. But for Mathias, this commonality has not been on display. The senior has scored at a 52.9 percent rate, which lands second on the team behind sophomore forward Leaonna Odom.

“It’s important as far as shot selection goes and not overdoing it and taking more shots than I really need to be taking in order for the team to succeed, so I still need to find my teammates and get my passing involved,” Mathias said. “If that starts to really flow, my shots will come and they’ll continue to come.”

As other frontcourt options emerge over the course of the season, Mathias is confident that she will “make it work” wherever she gets the ball. That attitude is one that allowed McCallie to play a bigger lineup with the senior playing the four spot.

“We’re just a bigger team, but we’re still a quick team, the dynamic that I’ve never been a part of,” Brown said. “Having such big players, but still being able to have an upbeat pace to the game.”

Another part of the forward’s game is her ability to lead by example. Mathias is not an official captain, but Brown said she is someone that McCallie looks to for leadership, especially among the many underclassmen forwards.

“The other posts have been watching her,” McCallie said. “She’s very technically sound on defense and offense and when they’re not sure about something, all they have to do is watch Erin.”

Although it is unlikely that the senior will add 3-point shooting to her repertoire this season, she has attempted two in her career.

“I don’t know about that. We’ll see if the time comes,” Mathias said. “I’m not going to just start shooting threes out of nowhere, but you never know."


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