By JOEDY McCREARY, AP Sports Writer
DURHAM, N.C.-- Two very important things will happen to most of Duke’s women’s basketball players between now and October.
They’ll get older, and they’ll get healthier.
At times, the Blue Devils’ starting lineup consisted solely of freshmen and sophomores. Their roster was trimmed to eight scholarship players because of injuries and off-court issues. Yet they still found a way to reach the regional finals for the third straight year.
Another season ended at that stage when top-seeded Stanford beat second-seeded Duke 81-69 on Monday night in the Fresno Regional final.
“This will be a teaching moment,” coach Joanne P. McCallie said, “a learning game for all the returning players.”
And there are lots of them.
Do-everything guard Chelsea Gray, guard Tricia Liston and forward Haley Peters will be juniors next season and star center Elizabeth Williams—voted the top rookie and top defensive player in the Atlantic Coast Conference as a freshman—will look to keep improving as a sophomore after helping Duke (27-6) win the league’s outright regular-season title.
“It sounds corny, but the sky’s the limit,” senior forward Kathleen Scheer said of her young teammates. “The way this team came together, with the age, was so impressive. You’d never guess they were freshmen and sophomores, just by the way they carry themselves.”
It’ll help that the stress fracture in Williams’ lower right leg ought to be completely healed by the fall. She played through it during the NCAA tournament after injuring it at some unknown point late in the season.
“It didn’t bother me when I was playing,” Williams said. “That was the last thing on my mind. You’re playing for your life in” the tournament.
It was just the latest on a list of maladies that plagued the Blue Devils all year.
— Forward Amber Henson—the younger sister of North Carolina men’s forward John Henson—played only eight games as a freshman before having surgery in January to stabilize her right kneecap and missed the rest of the season.
— A second McDonald’s All-American—guard Richa Jackson—started 17 games before tearing her left anterior cruciate ligament, ending her season.
— Guard Chloe Wells started 10 games but missed the second semester because of an undisclosed violation of school policy.
That raises the question of just how good will the Blue Devils be once their roster is full.
“This is a team that has overcome adversity in so many ways,” McCallie said. “Fought through things out of our control, which is just incredible. This team really pushed the envelope for who we are. We’re into the whole thing of developing the team.”
Duke should be in good shape to enter the 2012-13 as a serious contender to reach their first Final Four since 2006.
Only two scholarship seniors depart, Scheer and guard Shay Selby, and they combined for only 11 percent of Duke’s scoring.
The Blue Devils’ top six scorers should be back, including five who averaged at least 10 points. Williams led the team with averages of 14 points, 7.8 rebounds and a league-leading 3.6 blocked shots. Gray was second in scoring (12.5 points) and an ACC-best 6.2 assists.
And after another season ended one step short of the Final Four, they sound like they’ll carry a grudge into next season.
“I hate this feeling, and so do my teammates,” Williams said. “I know none of us want to feel that way again.”