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Duke women's basketball set to open NCAA tournament vs. No. 12 seed Belmont

Lexie Brown will face a childhood friend when Duke plays Belmont Saturday morning.
Lexie Brown will face a childhood friend when Duke plays Belmont Saturday morning.

When Mississippi State’s Morgan William released her midrange jump shot with 1.3 seconds remaining in last year’s Final Four, Connecticut had won 111 straight games, including four consecutive national championships. But when the clock hit zero, the historic streak was over.

This year, all eyes will again be on the Huskies, and the Blue Devils will potentially have a say if they will return to the mountaintop once again. But that Sweet 16 meeting will not happen without two wins this weekend.

When fifth-seeded Duke and 12th-seeded Belmont tip off at 11 a.m. Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., the game will also have a greater meaning than merely a first-round NCAA tournament contest. For the first time since their days in high school, graduate student Lexie Brown and Bruin graduate student Kylee Smith will face each other wearing opposite uniforms.

“She’s one of their best players. From what she’s told me about them, they’re really good shooters. They’re just a really solid overall team and they have a lot of fun playing with each other. Obviously, they dominated their league the last couple of years, so I’m kind of excited to play against her,” Brown said Monday night after the selection show. “I haven’t been able to play against her in college. We used to play AAU together and she’s been one of my best friends since middle school, sixth grade. I don’t know too much about them, but I know a lot about her.”

Brown and Smith first met as members of the Georgia ICE 13U AAU team. Later on, the pair played on opposite sides in the Elite Eight of the Georgia State High School playoffs.

Although the two standout college players did not grow up in the same town in Georgia, they remain best friends. Brown’s father and former NBA star Dee Brown helped the two grow their games together, and it has paid dividends as they both will begin their final NCAA tournament at No. 4 seed Georgia's home arena. The elder Brown created an atmosphere that served as a second family for Smith.

Like Lexie Brown, Smith transferred colleges in order to find her fit. She started her career at Vanderbilt, where she notched more than six points and three rebounds a game. But Smith decided to transfer to Belmont, where she has led the team in scoring for the past three seasons and been one of the main reasons why the Bruins have won three straight Ohio Valley Conference championships.

Smith, who missed the first six games of the conference slate due to an ankle twist, is accompanied at the top of the scoring charts with sophomore Darby Maggard, who checks in with 16.7 points and 5.3 assists per game. Smith enters the tournament with 18.6 points and 7.0 rebounds per contest. The duo has combined to drain 188 3-pointers, 55 more than Brown has combined to hit alongside classmate Rebecca Greenwell.

The Blue Devils (22-8) will need to limit the performance of the Bruin duo in order to win the first meeting in school history between the two teams. Belmont (31-3) enters the first-round matchup averaging 10.2 made triples while shooting 36.8 percent from long range, which lands sixth and 27th in the nation, respectively. On the other side of the ball, the Blue Devils ran ninth with a more efficient 39.0 percent clip from beyond the arc. 

Another area where the Blue Devils have an advantage is on the defensive end. The ACC’s tallest team enters the matchup with a 2.5-inch average height advantage. Belmont will likely start 6-foot-3 Sally McCabe in the center position, with the rest of the starters falling short of the 6-foot bar. The Blue Devils will likely start four players taller than 6-feet, with senior Erin Mathias standing tall at 6-foot-4 and graduate student Bego Faz Davalos alongside her at 6-foot-3.

“Duke is an incredible team, and we’re just excited for this opportunity to be in the NCAA tournament,” Smith said in a YouTube interview Monday night. “We get to go back to Georgia, where I’m from, so that’ll be fun.”

Although the Blue Devils missed out on hosting the opening rounds at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the location was one that Duke will happily take. Located near Brown's hometown and only a few hours from Charlotte—where Greenwell’s family now lives—Athens is less than six hours south of Durham by car.

“I didn’t care about seed. I didn’t care about anything except Athens. I thought let’s try to get there. It gives everyone a chance to support our team,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said Monday night. “We want to play our best basketball of the year, and it would be fun if some folks witness that, be a part of that directly, so it’s just a very exciting time for our team.”

In McCallie’s last 13 tournament appearances dating back to her time at Michigan State, her team has advanced into the Round of 32. If history repeats itself, the Blue Devils will face off against the winner of Georgia and 13th-seeded Mercer, with a berth in the Sweet 16 and a potential matchup against No. 1 Connecticut on the line March 24 in the Times Union Center.

“It’d be super, because what you’re telling me is that we won the first two games on the road in a magnificent fashion in Athens,” McCallie said. “I can’t think of anything better, so that would be terrific.”

But before even a second-round matchup is on the table, McCallie’s senior-laden team will need to knock off a fellow top-25 team whose seniors play a critical part.

“[Smith is] solid as a rock,” first-year Belmont head coach Bart Brooks told ESPN’s Around the Rim podcast earlier this month. “You depend on her every single game and you know what you’re going to get from her.”

Belmont is currently riding a 22-game win streak, and a ranking in the AP top 25 that would signify a top-six seed. However, as a result of a weaker strength of schedule than what Power-5 teams can present to the selection committee, the Bruins sit in a dangerous underdog position.

Brown and Smith will match up for the first and last time for their respective schools. But just like they have done for more than 10 years now, they will walk away friends.

“We’re both super competitive and we’ve never let basketball come between us, and we’re not going to start now,” Smith said in an interview posted on her team's twitter account. “I’m definitely going for a win.”

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