DURHAM, N.C.-- After losing to Notre Dame in the women’s NCAA Norfolk Regional finals, Duke’s Blue Devils’ suffered in silence on the bus ride home from Norfolk, Va.
“No one spoke for three and a half hours,’’ said head coach Joanne P. McCallie, who interpreted her players’ somber mood as a positive sign.
The silence spoke loudly. It expressed disappointment, hurt, and the competitive hunger the Blue Devils possess. They are in an elite program and aren’t satisfied to end a season in the Elite Eight.
Their goal is to be the Elite One.
But it isn't as if they don’t have a lot to celebrate at their team banquet Thursday night. They do.
* A fourth straight ACC regular season title and 17-1 record in conference play. * A third league tournament crown in the last four years. * A 33-3 overall record and fourth straight trip to the Elite Eight. * The fourth undefeated home campaign in school history * Multiple individual accolades on the court and in the classroom.
They covet more, a trip to the Final Four at Nashville, Tenn., next year and joy ride home with a national championship. They have a chance. Their immediate future looks even more promising than the glowing past.
Here are some reasons for optimism:
Players who provided 93.7 percent of last year’s points and the top seven scorers are back.
The cast includes all five starters, five seniors, and three All-Americas. Joining them is the second-ranked recruiting class in the country. So Duke likely will start the season with a No. 2 ranking behind eight-time national champion Connecticut.
“We should grow in versatility,’’ said McCallie, already excited about next year. “The freshmen are very talented. We can have different lineups and a more competitive cauldron in practice. We are always trying to get the best and most out of each other.
“Now the seniors have a real opportunity to dictate and communicate the values of the program (to the younger players). For us it’s a continual process, pursuing (championships)."
Peters and Liston were deadly behind the arc, shooting 46.5 percent and 47.7, respectively, for a Blue Devil team that led the nation with a 40.5 three-point touch.
While all were outstanding last season, they’ll strive to elevate their games even more next year. Or as McCallie stresses: “Everybody’s got to get out of the box” to get where Duke wants to go. A key, she notes, is consistency come March for six NCAA Tournament games.
The seniors -- Liston, Peters, Gray, Chloe Wells, and Richa Jackson -- arrived as the No.1 rated recruiting class in 2010 and turned potential into production. It's their last chance to help Duke reach that Elite One status. Avoiding injuries -- which plagued the team the last two years -- is important.
When prolific point guard Gray suffered a season-ending injury this past February, it looked as if the Devils might be bedeviled.
“It was so devastating,’’ McCallie said. “But our concentration was exceptional. We were hyper focused. We had great players who were determined to play our way.”
Jones, a freshman, came off the bench to sparkle at point guard while Gray cheered from the bench. Jones earned ACC Tournament MVP and Norfolk Regional All-Tournament Team honors for her efforts. Williams, Liston, Peters, Wells and others “rose to the occasion.”
And how about the incoming freshmen? The class includes three McDonald’s All-Americas and top-10 prospects -- 6-1 guard Rebecca Greenwell, 6-3 forward Kendall Cooper and 6-4 forward Oderah Chidom. And Kianna Holland, a 5-9 guard, is a top 25 recruit.
“It is an amazing group of student-athletes,’’ McCallie said. “Their competitive natures and versatility are two keys to the group as a whole.”
They will be introduced to an aggressive style of basketball featuring multiple defenses that held opponents to 34.1 percent shooting last year and an attacking offense with post and perimeter scoring.
Good thing is the rookies don’t face the pressure of having to carry the Blue Devils. They can blend in and augment the veterans. Based on expectations, the fine foursome should make a strong Duke team stronger.
But rewind for a moment. McCallie and the Blue Devils will take time to relive special 2013 highlights at Thursday’s banquet and there were plenty of them, including three wins over arch-rival North Carolina on the way to the ACC regular season and tournament titles.
“We will have a tremendous celebration,’’ McCallie said. “It’s really important to have some reflection.”