Tuesday March 13th, 2007

In past NCAA women's tournaments, one could often find a creative motivational ploy at work in the Duke locker room. The Blue Devils who took the program to its first Final Four, in 1999, would dim the lights and visualize themselves getting through game situations. The 2002 squad, which also made it to the Final Four, had a stuffed hamster, the former family pet of guard Sheana Mosch, for a good-luck charm. Members of last year's team, which lost to Maryland 78-75 in overtime in the championship game, competed for a sweets-packed "passion purse," which was awarded after each game to the Blue Devil who had played with the most fire. This year no such incentives are necessary. "The loss in last year's final has been motivation enough," coach Gail Goestenkors says. With that heartbreak still fresh in their minds -- Duke led most of the game, then Maryland hit a three with :06 left to force OT -- the Blue Devils have efficiently mowed through one of the toughest schedules in the country, running off 30 straight wins before losing to N.C. State 70-65 in the ACC tournament semifinals. Along the way Duke beat three top-six foes: North Carolina (twice), Maryland (twice) and Tennessee in Knoxville on the evening that Vols men's coach Bruce Pearl showed up bare-chested with his torso painted orange to support the Lady Vols. That success has brought the nation's top ranking, a No. 1 seed in the tournament and a new level of support from the Cameron Crazies, who helped to sell out two home games and offered a tribute normally reserved for the Duke men's team: To get into the student section, they camped out in a line of tents (Goestenkorsopolis, they named it) before the women's final home game, against hated North Carolina.

Before the season no one expected such dominance from this team. With the departures of three seniors, including two-time All-America Monique Currie, and a season-ending injury to 6'5" junior center Chante Black, the Blue Devils were missing three of their top four rebounders and nearly 50% of their scoring from 2005-06. Moreover, for the first time in years, it appeared, Duke had no go-to player. Four months later they have a bunch of them, including fifth-year senior point guard Lindsey Harding, the ACC Player of the Year; sophomore shooting guard Abby Waner, who leads the team in scoring (14.2 points per game) and steals (2.5); and 6'7" senior post Alison Bales, whose 140 blocks are tops in the nation. "Stars have emerged," says Goestenkors, "but we're really a team because we haven't relied on one person. If somebody has a bad game, it's O.K. because everybody contributes."

While Duke's offense is prolific (its 76.5 scoring average ranks 11th in the country) and balanced (seven players average at least five points a game), defense is what sets the team apart. With Harding pressuring the ball, Waner and junior small forward Wanisha Smith denying opponents on the wings and Bales looming in the paint to erase any mistakes, the Blue Devils are tough to penetrate. Duke allows 51.6 points a game and 33.1% shooting from the field -- second best in the nation in both categories. "Bales changes the game defensively," says Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb, whose 11th-ranked team lost to the Blue Devils 69-48 in December. "She is so good at clogging the middle and challenging shots that you can't score in the paint."

Like Bales, Waner showed flashes of brilliance last year, but her tendency to brood over missed shots limited her effectiveness. "Last year if Abby wasn't hitting her three, she was done emotionally," says Goestenkors. Waner has matured since then -- and writes next play on the top of her shoes to remind herself to move on -- and contributes in other ways when her shot is off. "Now she is a [more complete] player," says her coach. "She passes, she drives, she plays great defense."

The team's leader is the quick and serene Harding, who is the rarest of national player of the year candidates: Twice honored as the ACC's top defensive player, she isn't first on the team in any statistical category except assists (3.9 per game), and she's tied with Smith in that department. "It's not about scoring with Lindsey," says Goestenkors. "She takes great pride in her defense, first and foremost. She'll hit the big shots when we need her to, but when we don't need her to score, she is focused on getting everybody else involved."

While Harding prefers helping others, on and off the court (teammates call the sociology major, who spends a lot of her free time volunteering for the Special Olympics and Ronald McDonald House, "Mama Lindsey"), by necessity she has developed into one of Duke's most versatile scoring threats. Harding, who can drive coast-to-coast for a layup or pull up and hit a three, credits much of her development to an unplanned year off in 2004-05, when she was suspended from the team for an undisclosed violation of team rules. She continued attending class and led the practice squad, often taking on the role of the upcoming opponent's best player. "If that player did nothing but shoot threes, I spent all week finding ways to get threes off," says Harding, who averages 14.0 points a game, second on the team. "If that player made a lot of layups, every time I had the ball I had to figure out, How can I score a layup? That really helped my offense."

During games she sat on the bench with Goestenkors, learning to appreciate her coach's strategies and point of view and growing comfortable enough that she now just calls her G. "Since my freshman year G has become more relaxed," says Harding. "In the past, if she was tense, I would get tense. In big games this year she's been cool, I've been cool, the team has been cool. She had tried the freakout, let's-get-crazy, insane coaching style, and it didn't work. I think she has found that we've gotten closer to a championship with a more relaxed style and by not worrying about the things we can't control."

Goestenkors, who hasn't won a title in four trips to the Final Four, still worries plenty about the things her players can control. The day after the Blue Devils' 74-70 victory at Tennessee in January, she walked into the team's follow-up video session with one page of notes on things they had done well and two pages on things they needed to improve. "Looking at the video, you would never know we had won," she says. "There is always room for improvement. That's what helps to keep us motivated."

Daily improvement may not be as much fun as a passion purse, but come April 3 in Cleveland the Blue Devils could all be sharing the sweetest reward: an NCAA title.

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