The undefeated and second-ranked Duke women's basketball team is eclipsed on its own campus by the undefeated No. 1 men's team and overshadowed in its own game by undefeated No. 1 Tennessee. The Duke women average 7,000 fewer fans for home games than unranked Texas Tech, which draws close to 12,000 a game, and have about 10 fewer beat writers than No. 7 Connecticut. But you won't hear any of these Blue Devils complaining. When you have size, speed, balance, chemistry and enough depth to keep a full starting lineup on your bench, who needs the limelight? ¬∂ "Being Number 2 and behind the curtain is a good place for this team," says senior forward Mistie Williams. "We don't feel any pressure." ¬∂ The Blue Devils have done pressure, and they found it didn't suit them. For years they broke every prepractice huddle with the chant, "National Champs!" but never achieved that goal. "We realized that if we're doing that in the preseason, maybe we're looking a little too far ahead," says junior point guard Lindsey Harding.
These in-the-moment Blue Devils (14-0 through Sunday) are crushing opponents--through 14 games their average margin of victory was a whopping 42.8 points. Duke already has six 100-point games this year, tying a school record and giving it a shot at being the best offensive team in the history of the women's game (chart). After injuries, transfers and a suspension reduced Duke's roster to eight players last season, the Blue Devils are now giddy over the length of their bench. "Last year we had talent but no depth," says coach Gail Goestenkors. "This year when someone gets into foul trouble or isn't having a great game, there's no need to panic, because we have so many options."
Consider Duke's 86-68 thrashing of sixth-ranked Maryland in front of 16,097 screaming turtle fans on Sunday. With Williams and center Alison Bales in foul trouble and top scorer Monique Currie out of sync early, Duke held off the Terrapins with stifling defense (the Blue Devils forced 24 turnovers) and career nights from Harding and 6'5" sophomore reserve Chante Black, who each scored 19 points.
"They have no weaknesses," says Maryland coach Brenda Frese, whose Terps lost to Duke for the 13th straight time. "They have size, speed, a good inside game and a bunch of guards who can shoot the three. Eight or nine of their players could start on any team in the country."
January 16, 2006
All five starters from last year's 31-5 squad are back, as is Harding, who sat out last season after violating team rules. Add national high school player of the year Abby Waner, a 5'10" freshman guard from Highlands Ranch, Colo., who started immediately, and a handful of other high school All-Americas and you get some ferociously competitive practices. "It's hard to get a lot of minutes on this team," says senior guard Jessica Foley, one of two starters from last year who now come off the bench. "You have to bring your A game every day. The practice-player-of-the-day award used to be dominated by one or two people. This year everyone has won it at least once."
That intensity pays off in games. The Blue Devils not only lead the nation in scoring, but they're also tops in field goal percentage (55.4%), assists (25.2) and blocks (7.9). They rank second in rebounding margin (+14.2); three-point field goal percentage (44.8%); and field goal percentage defense (31.7%).
Goestenkors is most delighted by the assists. "This team is so selfless," she says. "Our players have all been willing to sacrifice, and that's because they see the big picture. When you have a lot of talent, people can get caught up in their scoring and minutes. That hasn't happened on this team."
Twelve players average double figures in minutes, and no one is playing more than 26 a game. That's been a relief for Currie, who averaged more than 31 minutes a game last year and was worn out by season's end as Duke fell 59-49 to LSU in the Elite Eight. A fifth-year senior, she had considered giving up her final year of eligibility to join the WNBA, but she attended the Final Four in Indianapolis as a Kodak All-America, and as she watched Baylor and Michigan State battle for the title, she got sucked back in. "I knew we were going to have a good chance at a title this year," says Currie, who received degrees in public policy and African-American studies last May and is now working on a graduate degree in humanities. "I really wanted to be part of a team that could do some special things."
Before that can happen, the Blue Devils must get through the toughest part of their schedule, which is dead ahead. Tennessee, which has faced much tougher opposition than Duke (seven ranked teams, compared with Duke's two) beat Connecticut 89-80 in Knoxville last Saturday and will invade Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 23. Number 4 North Carolina, which steamrollered Connecticut 77-54 in Hartford in December, arrives six days later.
But these Blue Devils know that it doesn't pay to look too far down the road. That's why they now break their practice huddles with a simple, "Together!"
"That's all we say right now," says Harding. "Hopefully at the end of the year we can say, 'National Champs.'"
Running up a total of 173 points in wins over Florida State and Maryland last week actually lowered Duke's scoring average, to 96.9 points a game. That figure still leads the nation, though, and is higher than Providence's NCAA--record average of 96.7, set in 1990-91. Even more impressive is the average winning margin for these Blue Devils. Here's how Duke compares with the most dominant teams in women's hoops history and how those teams finished their seasons.
|TEAM||SEASON||PPG||OPP. PPG||MARGIN||TOURNAMENT FINISH|
|Louisiana Tech||1981-82||87.3||54.3||33.0||National champions|
|Louisiana Tech||1989-90||86.5||53.5||33.0||Final Four|
|Louisiana Tech||1995-96||86.4||53.5||32.9||Elite Eight|
• See weekly women's basketball power rankings at SI.com.