For the first time since 2018, Duke is going dancing.
Duke was named a No. 3 seed in the Seattle 4 Region of the NCAA tournament Sunday evening. This will mark Kara Lawson’s first tournament appearance as head coach and Duke’s first since 2018, when it was eliminated in the Sweet 16 after a loss to No. 1-seed UConn.
“I’ve never been to March,” Lawson said after the Blue Devils’ Feb. 26 loss to North Carolina. “I don’t know what prepares you for it. I’m just being honest — I’ve never coached in an NCAA tournament. People tell me that the league prepares you. You know, the ACC in general — the quality of the teams, stylistically, the differences of the teams — will help you. But I don’t know. I’m going to be a newbie.”
The Blue Devils will kick off their first round of tournament play Saturday at home in Cameron Indoor Stadium against No. 14-seed Iona. With a victory, Duke will face the winner of No. 6-seed Colorado and No. 11-seed Middle Tennessee in the Round of 32.
Saturday will be the first time Duke has hosted a first-round game since 2017, when it routed No.15-seed Hampton but lost to No. 10-seed Oregon in the second round. Duke has never won the Big Dance but has made it to the championship game twice, in 1999 and 2006.
“I think it’s just the respect our team has earned,” Lawson said of hosting the first and second rounds during a media availability Sunday night. “I think it’s the respect that was earned through the course of the year … the nonconference that we played, all the road games, and then certainly in the ACC, the battles that we’ve had with everyone in the conference: it just speaks to our entire body of work.”
“At the end of the day, it’s fun to play in [Cameron Indoor Stadium]; we’ve felt the love in there all season long,” senior guard Celeste Taylor said. “So to be back and have the opportunity to host and have other teams play in our gym — it’s really, really fun.”
The Blue Devils finished second in the ACC at the end of the regular season but lost to Virginia Tech in the semifinal round of the conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C. The team went 11-1 in nonconference play, with the one loss to then-No. 3 UConn in the first round of the Phil Knight Legacy, and 14-4 in its conference schedule.
After starting the season unranked, Duke ended the regular season ranked No. 13 and even spent a week in the top 10 at No. 9 after a 57-52 win over then-No. 9 Notre Dame. It finished No. 10 in the NET rankings, which take into consideration additional factors such as strength of schedule, scoring margin and the quality of wins and losses.
By the time Duke tips off Saturday, it will not have played for two weeks. The break, though, could be valuable time for the team to work on offensive consistency, Lawson said after Duke’s conference tournament loss to the Hokies.
“We’re fortunate that there’s a two-week break and we can really dig in and get better because we have a lot of talented offensive players on this team, and I think we will improve and be better on offense when the [NCAA] tournament comes,” Lawson said. She added Sunday evening that she gave the team a few days off but that they have been working on cleaning up on both ends of the floor over the last few days.
“Just taking care of small mistakes — specifically, like defensive rotation, executing offensively, those things that we’ve struggled a little bit with that we want to have on key and on par for this intense competition that we’re about to go into,” graduate center Mia Heide said of what Duke has been working on over the last two weeks.
Lawson also noted that it’s “just nice to have an opponent now.”
“[We’re] just flipping our mindset and focusing on the team that’s in front of us,” Taylor said of playing nonconference teams in the tournament after a long stretch of conference play. “Obviously, we’re not going to know certain plays that teams run as often because of experience playing them prior. But at the end of the day, it’s just basketball, and our coaches are going to have us ready for that, so it’s going to be fun.”
Despite low-scoring concerns throughout the season, Duke still ended the season ranked as the best scoring defense in the ACC and second-best in all of Division I, only allowing 50.8 points per game and an opponent field goal percentage of 34.8%. Senior guard Celeste Taylor was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year while also earning spots on the All-ACC First Team and All-Defensive Team.
Duke was selected as the No. 8-overall and No. 2-seed in the Greenville Region seed in a Feb. 10 tournament preview by the NCAA women’s basketball tournament committee. Its seeding likely dropped after two lopsided losses to Virginia Tech and a nail-biter loss to North Carolina to cap its regular season.
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.