In past NCAAwomen's tournaments, one could often find a creative motivational ploy at workin the Duke locker room. The Blue Devils who took the program to its firstFinal Four, in 1999, would dim the lights and visualize themselves gettingthrough 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 agood-luck charm. Members of last year's team, which lost to Maryland 78--75 inovertime in the championship game, competed for a sweets-packed "passionpurse," which was awarded after each game to the Blue Devil who had playedwith the most fire. This year no such incentives are necessary. "The lossin last year's final has been motivation enough," coach Gail Goestenkorssays. With that heartbreak still fresh in their minds--Duke led most of thegame, then Maryland hit a three with :06 left to force OT--the Blue Devils haveefficiently mowed through one of the toughest schedules in the country, runningoff 30 straight wins before losing to N.C. State 70--65 in the ACC tournamentsemifinals. Along the way Duke beat three top-six foes: North Carolina (twice),Maryland (twice) and Tennessee in Knoxville on the evening that Vols men'scoach Bruce Pearl showed up bare-chested with his torso painted orange tosupport 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 reservedfor the Duke men's team: To get into the student section, they camped out in aline of tents (Goestenkorsopolis, they named it) before the women's final homegame, against hated North Carolina.
Before the seasonno one expected such dominance from this team. With the departures of threeseniors, including two-time All-America Monique Currie, and a season-endinginjury to 6'5" junior center Chante Black, the Blue Devils were missingthree of their top four rebounders and nearly 50% of their scoring from2005--06. Moreover, for the first time in years, it appeared, Duke had no go-toplayer. Four months later they have a bunch of them, including fifth-yearsenior point guard Lindsey Harding, the ACC Player of the Year; sophomoreshooting 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 aretops in the nation. "Stars have emerged," says Goestenkors, "butwe're really a team because we haven't relied on one person. If somebody has abad game, it's O.K. because everybody contributes."
While Duke'soffense is prolific (its 76.5 scoring average ranks 11th in the country) andbalanced (seven players average at least five points a game), defense is whatsets the team apart. With Harding pressuring the ball, Waner and junior smallforward Wanisha Smith denying opponents on the wings and Bales looming in thepaint to erase any mistakes, the Blue Devils are tough to penetrate. Dukeallows 51.6 points a game and 33.1% shooting from the field--second best in thenation in both categories. "Bales changes the game defensively," saysVanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb, whose 11th-ranked team lost to the BlueDevils 69--48 in December. "She is so good at clogging the middle andchallenging shots that you can't score in the paint."
Like Bales, Wanershowed flashes of brilliance last year, but her tendency to brood over missedshots limited her effectiveness. "Last year if Abby wasn't hitting herthree, she was done emotionally," says Goestenkors. Waner has matured sincethen--and writes next play on the top of her shoes to remind herself to moveon--and contributes in other ways when her shot is off. "Now she is a [morecomplete] player," says her coach. "She passes, she drives, she playsgreat defense."
The team's leaderis the quick and serene Harding, who is the rarest of national player of theyear candidates: Twice honored as the ACC's top defensive player, she isn'tfirst 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 withLindsey," 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 wedon't need her to score, she is focused on getting everybody elseinvolved."
While Hardingprefers helping others, on and off the court (teammates call the sociologymajor, who spends a lot of her free time volunteering for the Special Olympicsand Ronald McDonald House, "Mama Lindsey"), by necessity she hasdeveloped into one of Duke's most versatile scoring threats. Harding, who candrive coast-to-coast for a layup or pull up and hit a three, credits much ofher development to an unplanned year off in 2004--05, when she was suspendedfrom the team for an undisclosed violation of team rules. She continuedattending class and led the practice squad, often taking on the role of theupcoming opponent's best player. "If that player did nothing but shootthrees, I spent all week finding ways to get threes off," says Harding, whoaverages 14.0 points a game, second on the team. "If that player made a lotof layups, every time I had the ball I had to figure out, How can I score alayup? That really helped my offense."
During games shesat on the bench with Goestenkors, learning to appreciate her coach'sstrategies and point of view and growing comfortable enough that she now justcalls her G. "Since my freshman year G has become more relaxed," saysHarding. "In the past, if she was tense, I would get tense. In big gamesthis year she's been cool, I've been cool, the team has been cool. She hadtried 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 morerelaxed style and by not worrying about the things we can't control."
Goestenkors, whohasn't won a title in four trips to the Final Four, still worries plenty aboutthe things her players can control. The day after the Blue Devils' 74--70victory at Tennessee in January, she walked into the team's follow-up videosession with one page of notes on things they had done well and two pages onthings they needed to improve. "Looking at the video, you would never knowwe had won," she says. "There is always room for improvement. That'swhat helps to keep us motivated."
Daily improvementmay not be as much fun as a passion purse, but come April 3 in Cleveland theBlue Devils could all be sharing the sweetest reward: an NCAA title.
Road to Cleveland
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