With the end of 2018 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, The Blue Zone will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.
Coming in at No. 6 on our list: Duke women’s basketball used a breakout tournament from Leaonna Odom to upset Georgia and advance to their first Sweet Sixteen since 2015.
With two All-ACC-caliber players in Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell leading the team every step of the way last season, it would have been hard to imagine anyone else taking over in the most crucial time of the year.
But, with the Splash Sisters being the main focus of other teams’ attacks, Leaonna Odom stepped up to lead the team in scoring in all three NCAA tournament games, before the Blue Devils fell to powerhouse Connecticut in the Albany regional.
Odom was given a smaller role last season as Duke’s fourth option with 9.6 points per contest, but the then-sophomore was a crucial part of a big third quarter in the first round against Belmont to help the 5th-seeded Blue Devils move on. The California native’s 25 points were a career high, and she also chipped in six rebounds and four assists.
“[Odom] just makes everyone around her better…. We did not feel that anybody could guard [Odom]. We ran at her at point more in the second, made a couple of adjustments at halftime to give her a chance to give poor Lexie a breather from handling the offense so much,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said after the game. “[Odom] is a tough matchup for anybody. Hopefully she can enjoy playing at her highest level and she’ll see the team really rise as well.”
McCallie’s squad came into the Athens pod as the fifth seed though, and would have to upset nationally ranked Georgia to make it past the first weekend for the first time in five years.
Duke came out to a different tune against the Bulldogs, and used a smothering defense en route to a 66-40 blowout victory. The Blue Devil defenders only allowed one Georgia player into double figures, and once again, Odom stepped up with a team-high 16 points to go along with her seven rebounds.
But, the top-seeded Huskies would await in the next round, and the daunting task of slowing Geno Auriemma’s 34-0 Connecticut squad was too overwhelming for Duke, which still put up an inspiring defensive effort in what ended as a 72-59 loss.
It seemed that the Blue Devils were doomed from the start, with Brown and Greenwell being locked up by the Husky defenders, but Duke impressed by never backing down against Connecticut. Odom again put on a show with 22 points and eight boards, and the team turned it on in the fourth quarter to make it a closer game, but the Huskies easily took care of business, before their quest for a 12th title was derailed by Notre Dame a week later in the Final Four.
“[Connecticut is] a team that plays with terrific runs, and you look at their rebounding, second shots, they got into transition, and that spells the game pretty quickly there. They're in terrific shape, they can play forever, and yeah, I thought it was problematic for sure,” McCallie said post-game. “We did settle down. I thought we did play, which was great. But that was for a quarter, and it needs to continue.”
With Odom stepping up in the big dance to lead the Blue Devils back to national prominence, it showed a passing of the guard as the Splash Sisters graduated and moved on to professional careers. The now-junior is second in points per contest this season and leads the team in rebounding, as this Duke team will try to come alive during ACC play and avoid missing the NCAA tournament for just the second time in McCallie’s tenure in Durham.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
READ MORE on Duke's NCAA Tournament run:
A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown to date: