March 19, 2015

(AP) - Fourth-seeded Duke enters its NCAA Tournament opener Friday in Durham against Albany with its worst seed in nearly two decades.

The 16th-ranked Blue Devils (21-10) are making their 21st straight tournament appearance, but this is their lowest seed since they were a No. 5 in 1997. Unless they win the national title, they'll finish with 11 losses - which they haven't done since '97.

They've had about two weeks to refocus after a season that included two three-game losing streaks and a loss to Notre Dame in an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal.

''That was a rough thing for us,'' coach Joanne P. McCallie said Thursday. ''We had some great lessons learned from that, and we've had some time to take off and time to prepare.''

One of the biggest issues - once again - has been injuries.

The Blue Devils lost key post player Oderah Chidom to a season-ending shoulder injury. Past years have been derailed by season-ending injuries to guards Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones.

Factor in the abrupt transfer of freshman guard Sierra Calhoun and the season-ending knee injury suffered by reserve Lynee Belton, and this clearly isn't the same Duke team that was No. 7 in the preseason rankings.

''We've evolved since then,'' McCallie said. ''The team has been resilient and tough, and people have stepped up.''

This marks the final NCAA Tournament for Duke senior Elizabeth Williams, one of the most decorated players in program history. The prolific shot-blocker is 84 points shy of becoming the second player in school history with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.

''Knowing 'E' since the seventh grade,'' teammate Ka'lia Johnson said. ''It's good to be playing on her team and not against her.''

The Blue Devils start three players who stand 6-foot-3 or taller. None of the other three teams playing their first-round games in Durham can say that - and the Great Danes don't have anybody taller than 6-2.

''We definitely do plan to use our speed to our advantage,'' said Albany guard Sarah Royals, who is 5-9. ''Size doesn't always matter.''

Duke cruised to an 81-51 victory over Albany in December 2013, three years after it won the first meeting 83-48.

Albany (24-8) is making its fourth straight NCAA appearance and has gone home without a win in each of the last three trips.

"I am looking forward to going back (to the tournament), and we cannot wait," forward Shereesha Richards told the team's official website after her 28 points helped the Great Danes win the America East Conference tournament championship game. "My teammates always know I am getting beat up, and they do their job."

Richards, the tournament MVP, has also won back-to-back America East player of the year awards. She averages 21.3 points and had five 30-point games.

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