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Joanne P. McCallie's tenure at Duke: The final years

McCallie's final few seasons in Durham provided a mix of highs and lows.
McCallie's final few seasons in Durham provided a mix of highs and lows.

This fall, a new era will dawn for Duke women’s basketball. But before we officially move on, The Chronicle is going to take a walk through Joanne P. McCallie’s 13-year tenure in Durham. After her early dominance from 2007 to 2013 and the struggles that ensued from 2013 to 2016, we now look at her last four seasons. 

Elite programs can sustain themselves easily. It’s a positive feedback loop: winning leads to recruiting interest, leading to better players, leading to winning.

And programs can fall just as easily if something breaks. That was the fear surrounding the 2016-17 Blue Devils, confirmed by their 2016 recruiting class, which ranked outside of the national top-20 for the first time in seven years.

Still, the 2016-17 team was stacked. Lexie Brown, who transferred to the program in 2015, became eligible, joining Rebecca Greenwell to become the "Splash Sisters." The duo combined for 34.7 points on 40 percent shooting from downtown during that first season. Sophomore Kyra Lambert broke out behind elite defense and 3-point shooting, while freshman Leaonna Odom proved to be an immediate all-around force. The team was even replete with excellent role players, from Oderah Chidom to Kendall Cooper to Erin Mathias, each of whom were excellent rebounders and inside scorers.

They finished second in the ACC, No. 9 in the AP poll and earned a No. 2 seed in March. They blew out Hampton to open, but Lambert tore her ACL, making the difference in a second-round loss to Oregon. Lambert was painfully replaced with a non-shooter, while the Ducks’ spread pick and roll picked apart Duke's matchup-zone.

Chidom and Cooper graduated that spring, legendary assistant coach Al Brown retired and recruiting director Michele Van Gorp left for the NBA offices. But adding distinguished assistant Jim Corrigan and an elite recruiting class sparked hope that, even without an injured Lambert, the team would still compete the next season.

Compete it did, thanks to breakout star Haley Gorecki, who played well enough to be made a starter by Christmas. A six-foot, versatile point guard was sorely needed, especially with top freshman Mikayla Boykin tearing her ACL as well.

Gorecki's hip shut her down before March, but the Blue Devils still finished top-20 in the polls, earning a No. 5 seed and getting to the Sweet Sixteen. Where they met Connecticut.

Much like the previous season, the Blue Devils were knocked out of the NCAA tournament by a respectable margin, in large part thanks to having to replace a star with a non-shooter.

Following the defeat, the Splash Sisters graduated to the WNBA, with Mathias joining Duke’s Class of 2018 as well. Duke's highest incoming recruit ranked just 77th nationally, and Lambert’s preseason ACL re-tear meant the team was staring at about eight players worth playing time.

The Blue Devils’ 2018-19 nonconference slate made it abundantly clear this would be a year to forget, their only Power Five win coming against a poor Wisconsin squad, and their ACC schedule kicked off with five straight losses.

There were bright spots: Jade Williams solidified her ability as an inside scorer, top freshman Onome Akinbode-James proved a great interior defender and Australian first-year Miela Goodchild was one of the best 3-and-D guards in the nation.

But the losses kept piling up: freshman Rayah Craig violated university policy and was dropped by spring, Boykin never found her groove and reinjured her knee in January and Gorecki had her worst year as a starter. Duke was unceremoniously offed in the ACC tournament, finishing with its worst record in 26 years.

The Blue Devils didn’t lose anyone major over the summer, and inked a 13th-ranked freshman class that featured three top-100 recruits. 

Nevertheless, the 2019-20 campaign started roughly, with early 21-point losses to respectable Texas A&M and Northwestern, and embarrassing losses to Nebraska and FGCU. Duke even started 1-3 in conference play. But those losses were nail-biters, Lambert was back and improving, Boykin was getting in a rhythm and Azana Baines was breaking out.

Suddenly, Gorecki and Odom decided they weren’t losing. The Blue Devils flipped the script and finished the regular season on an 11-3 tear, with all eight regulars contributing, and miraculously finished third in the ACC. Historic wins against Notre Dame and at N.C. State provided highlights the program hadn't seen in years. They lost their first conference tournament game, but were set for a No. 9 or 10 seed in a year with a wide-open Elite Eight.

Then pandemic struck. Gorecki and Odom graduated virtually. Lambert and Baines transferred, and just one top-100 recruit will be tasked with trying to replace them. McCallie’s recruiting decline was finally coming home to roost.

So McCallie’s tenure ended just as her team’s final season did: with one last, improbable hoorah, everyone watching with bated breath as she defied the end. And just as she was about to prove her worth and provide the most emphatic entry in her list of accolades, it was over. Not with a bang, but with a six-minute video announcing the end of an era.

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