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Leaonna Odom's NCAA tournament emergence an encouraging sign for Duke women's basketball

<p>Leaonna Odom led Duke in scoring in all three of its NCAA tournament games.</p>

Leaonna Odom led Duke in scoring in all three of its NCAA tournament games.

ALBANY, N.Y.—The Blue Devils closed the books on their 2017-18 season in a 13-point loss to top-seeded Connecticut Saturday afternoon. Although the Huskies fairly successfully limited the production from the “Splash Sisters,” they could not limit Duke sophomore Leaonna Odom.

In the Sweet 16, the 6-foot-2 forward led all scorers with 22 points to continue her NCAA tournament emergence. She notched a career-high 25 points in Duke’s first-round victory against Belmont before registering 16 points to lead the team again in Duke’s win against fourth-seeded Georgia on the road.

Graduate students Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell registered 10 points and six points, respectively, in their final game donning the blue and white. But with all of the attention on one of the best backcourts in the nation, Odom was able to use her aggressive offensive play to drive into the paint for numerous midrange jumpers.

“You're not going to beat a really good team like Duke and think that you're going to take everything away from them. You're going to have to give up something,” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said. “You've just got to choose, okay, this is what we're willing to live with, and [Odom] took advantage of it.”

Odom finished her sophomore season in a fashion that many inside the Blue Devil program knew was possible. Despite immense potential and unparalleled athleticism, Odom stayed out of the limelight for much of the season.

There were times when the forward would not shoot the ball often. On eight occasions, Odom attempted four or fewer shots from the field. Four more times, she only took five shots. In those games, she was not assertive enough to display her full potential, something that her teammates have witnessed in practice all season.

“She doesn’t like the spotlight. She’s not interested in the individual stuff, but I think she’s beginning to understand more so that it’s not about that, it’s about how it affects everybody,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said after Duke’s first-round victory. “We did not feel that anybody could guard [Odom].”

In the NCAA tournament, that sentiment proved to be accurate. When Odom saw any opportunity to drive to the basket, she was difficult to stop regardless of who the opponent sent her way.

“My teammates gave me the ball in perfect position, and luckily I was able to score, so it could be a beginning,” Odom said. “I'm looking forward to next year.”

In her second season under the tutelage of McCallie, the Lompoc, Calif., native scored 9.6 points per game, the fourth-most on the team. The sophomore led the team in field-goal percentage at 52.9 percent. Using her immense athleticism, Odom grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game and had the most total rebounds on the team. The forward’s 71 offensive rebounds finished nine behind senior Erin Mathias for second place.

Oftentimes, by aggressively driving through the paint, Odom got a quality shot off over the top of smaller defenders. Other times, the sophomore took an open midrange jump shot that opponents conceded due to her potential off the dribble. That additional dimension will prove to be invaluable moving into next season, with the Blue Devils losing three graduate students and one senior.

“She's really good around the basket. She's really athletic. I'm sure she starts making jump shots, she'll be really, really a handful for everybody,” Auriemma said. “She's only a sophomore, right? Yeah, she's got a great future.”

When next season begins in November, Odom will be front and center of the Duke team. Once again, she will likely take the opening tip-off. But besides that, McCallie will hope to see the Odom that was on display to fuel the Blue Devils' run in the Sweet 16.

Odom can play practically every position on the floor as a result of her versatility and her ability to play inside and out. With three players returning from injuries and four more set to join the team in the fall, the dynamic of the Blue Devils will be far different.

After the regional semifinal loss, McCallie said that her team was “playing [its] best basketball in a lot of ways at this time of year.” That could not have been accomplished without Odom's emergence as a star.

It is no secret that Duke faced adversity upon adversity this season. With a new injury seeming to come every month, the Blue Devils could have counted themselves out and settled for what they had. But Brown, Greenwell, Mathias and Bego Faz Davalos did not let that happen in the last year of their career. Now, it is time to turn the reins over to the next round of upperclassmen.

“I think it's about time. I'm excited. We're all excited. I told her next season, I'd better not see a game where she's under 20,” junior Faith Suggs said. “I want to see it every time. She gives people energy, she keeps going and no one can guard her, so it was exciting.”

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