Finding strength in fewer numbers
Young Duke squad responds positively despite being down
If basketball seasons are anything like roller coasters, then the Duke University women’s squad has endured quite a wild ride.
Since the start of the season, the No. 5 Blue Devils have gone through a ton of turmoil in their lineup. In December, freshman center Amber Henson – a McDonald’s All-America selection – had a season-ending knee surgery. That same week, sophomore starting guard Chloe Wells, who was averaging 10.4 points per game, was suspended for the remainder of the season due to academic matters.
At the same time, Shay Selby –one of only two Duke seniors -- was serving a six-game suspension for a violation of team rules. After the New Year, Selby, known for her energy on the court, was voted back onto the squad by her teammates with head coach Joanne P. McCallie full supporting the decision.
“[She] needed to make better choices and she has done wonderful things since returning,” McCallie said. “That was challenging for everybody.”
Despite the challenges, the Blue Devils plowed ahead, and were undefeated in the Atlantic Coast Conference with three regular season contests left. But in the Virginia Tech contest on Feb. 15, the Blue Devils lost sophomore guard Richa Jackson (9.4 ppg) to an ACL tear, giving Duke just eight scholarship players in their rotation to finish out the regular season against Maryland, Miami and North Carolina.
"Every time we had something happen it was kind of like a gunshot … it hurt and we didn’t expect it to happen,” sophomore Tricia Liston said. “People would have thought all this would have slowed us down or held us back, but I think it actually made us stronger.”
“This is a team that stands tall no matter what happens,” McCallie said. “There have been adversities at every turn.”
Duke dropped a two-point contest at Maryland on Feb. 19, but rebounded with good wins against top-10 Miami and arch-rival North Carolina to claim the outright ACC regular season title.
The depleted Blue Devils (24-4) enter the ACC Tournament as the No. 1 seed, and will face the winner of NC State-Florida State in the quarterfinals on March 2.
“Our camaraderie is outstanding off the court, and it really shows on the court,” sophomore guard Chelsea Gray said. “We have each other’s backs with everything we have gone through. Coach P stresses that it has all made us stronger. Whatever we face, it won’t be as tough as what we have faced in the past. It makes us a better team.”
With only two seniors and one junior on the roster, the average age of the team is 19, but the experiences they have gone through this season have made the underclassmen grow up quickly.
“We have incredible leaders and you don’t have to be a senior to lead,” McCallie said. “That philosophy has paid off.”
|ASSOCIATED PRESS POLL|
|Check out the full rankings.|
Three of Duke’s underclassmen were voted to the All-ACC team. Gray (6.2 assists per game, 11.6 ppg) and freshman Elizabeth Williams garnered first team honors, while sophomore Haley Peters was named to the third team. Williams, averaging 14.4 ppg and 8.4 rebounds per game, was also chosen as the league’s Rookie of the Year. Peters – who received 17 stitches on her mouth during the regular season finale against UNC before returning to make some key plays in the game – has contributed 10.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg.
While McCallie commends her student-athletes’ leadership, she knows they all lean on a solid coaching staff, including new additions of Candice M. Jackson and Joy Cheek this season. Jackson played for McCallie at Michigan State, while Cheek graduated from Duke in 2010.
“That has been one of the greatest blessings of the whole story because you cannot keep a group together without great people that all speak the same language,” McCallie said. “I have Candice and Joy now, along with Al [Brown], my longtime assistant who is a very stabilizing force for us. They know how to speak to the team and work with them and understand what’s going on. They give a lot of maturity and direction and a lot of good thinking. When you have that, you can overcome things that are quite brutal.”
“We’ve all welcomed them in and they have taught us a lot of new things,” Liston said. “They’ve been a great addition to the coaching staff.”
Duke’s four losses were all to top-10 foes – Notre Dame, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland – but those games have just added more fuel to the Blue Devils’ fire as a “new season” begins.
“All of those games have prepared us for this,” Liston said. “With all of the injuries and missing players, everyone has had their chance to play and lead. Those experiences have made us more prepared. It will be interesting to see how we put it all together in the postseason.”
“It is very empowering to see people fight back and overcome adversity … to fight it and not accept it,” McCallie said.