Team Must Overcome a Familiar Challenge

Last year’s lessons may help the Blue Devils go further this year.

Photo by Jon Gardiner

In mid-January, Duke women’s basketball senior point guard Chelsea Gray played sixteen minutes against Boston College, tallying 11 points, two assists, two rebounds, and four steals. But something didn’t feel right. Tests after the game revealed a fractured right kneecap, sidelining the two-time All-America selection for the season and ending her Duke career.

For Blue Devil fans, the news was like hitting the rewind button.

A season ago, Duke was rolling through its schedule, undefeated in the ACC and with a loss at No. 1 Connecticut as its only blemish on the season. But against Wake Forest on February 17, 2013, the season hit a major speed bump when Gray dislocated her right kneecap after chasing a loose ball and landing awkwardly. The injury relegated the junior point guard to a player-coach role from the Duke bench for the rest of the season.

“You’re always sad to lose a personality, a person who can offer so much,” says head coach Joanne P. McCallie. “You just evolve—there’s no replacement strategy.”

Without their leader, last year’s Blue Devils won three of their last four games to clinch the regular season ACC championship, as McCallie handed the reins to freshman point guard Alexis Jones, who had no choice but to mature quickly. Many questioned whether the Blue Devils could make it to the Final Four without Gray. They came up one win short. Duke’s season came to an end in the Elite Eight against top-seeded Notre Dame, led by its own prolific point guard in Skylar Diggins.

After working hard all summer to rehab her knee, Gray was ready for the 2013-14 season opener at No. 9 California, a little more than an hour away from her hometown of Manteca. She put on a show for friends and family, scoring 22 points to lead the Blue Devils to a 70-58 victory. Over the next few games, she twice came within a rebound or two of a triple-double. Gray was back and playing at a high level, making Duke a contender for a national championship.

Yet now that Gray is out again, some of the same questions are circulating about Duke’s ability to get to Nashville and the Final Four. But this year’s team is well-equipped to survive the loss of its leader.

Besides Gray, the Blue Devils feature a lineup that includes three other 1,000-point scorers in seniors Tricia Liston and Haley Peters and junior Elizabeth Williams. Jones continued to mature as a player while sharing the backcourt with Gray, and senior Richa Jackson—who scored 17 points off the bench in Gray’s last game before her injury—has fit in nicely in the starting lineup. They’re also a stingy defensive squad, forcing opponents into frequent turnovers with high-pressure defense. Williams, a two-time All-America selection in her own right, has recorded at least one blocked shot in her first ninety-one games in a Duke uniform, giving the Blue Devils a threatening rim protector.

“We’re a different team this year than we were last year,” McCallie says. “What helps is that we have talented players, people that are confident about what they can do. When everybody plays to their best and tries to compete in a highlevel way, that’s the answer.”

McCallie also challenged her team in a way she didn’t last year by scheduling a grueling non-conference gauntlet. In addition to the season-opener at California, Duke went on the road to play highly-ranked teams in Kentucky and Oklahoma, winning all three games. The Blue Devils’ lone non-conference defeat came at home to No. 1 Connecticut. The ACC also got tougher this year with the addition of national powerhouse Notre Dame, joining Duke, Maryland, and North Carolina as conference heavy-weights. The benefits of being road-tested against top-notch competition will factor into tournament play this year, as schools will host the regional finals instead of traveling to play the games at neutral sites. Since Duke is hosting during the tournament’s opening weekend, the road to the Final Four likely will require a road victory over a top-tier team.

“Since we don’t have the ability to host, meaning the regionals, I think it’s very important to play away and play in a hostile environment and get comfortable with that,” McCallie says. “I think we are pretty comfortable with that, but the more you play away, the better.” Although Gray’s playing days are over, she will continue to be an asset this post-season by using her greatest skill, her vision, from the bench.

“She’s like another coach,” says Peters. “It’s easier for her to tell you what’s going on in the game in some ways more than a coach because she’s played the game so much recently, and she’s been on the floor with each of us and knows how each of us plays as well as anybody does.”

This year’s team is also hungry, determined to break through the barrier of four consecutive Elite Eight exits and reach the Final Four. For the team’s five seniors, the end of the road is near.

“We’re not satisfied with what’s happened in the past three years. Obviously, we want more than that,” says Liston, who came to Duke primarily as a 3-point shooter but has grown into an all-around scorer. “It’s our last year, and we don’t have another chance, so there’s definitely a sense of urgency because this is our last go-around. It’s definitely a constant reminder.”

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