PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - The second-seeded Blue Devils are constantly evolving.
Only a few teams reach a point in the season when they boast a 32-3 record. Even fewer do it with a constantly shifting starting lineup.
The Blue Devils, playing in their second straight Regional Final Tuesday against top-seeded Connecticut, have unveiled 11 different starting lineups during the season.
The constant changing of the starting five speaks to not only the depth of this Duke squad, but also head coach Joanne P. McCallie's constant strive to find the starting five that can give her the best 40 minutes of basketball.
On Sunday, McCallie made a change back to a lineup that had not started a game together since the Blue Devils come-from-behind victory over N.C. State on Jan. 23, 2011.
Seniors Jasmine Thomas, Krystal Thomas and Karima Christmas took the court alongside freshmen Haley Peters and Chelsea Gray. The unit would lead Duke, much like it did during a four-game stretch between Jan. 14 - Jan. 23, to a 70-63 win over third-seeded DePaul.
McCallie swapped sophomore Allison Vernerey and junior Shay Selby for Peters and Gray, switching a starting group that had rolled off five straight wins.
"When I looked at the two games down in Durham, we didn't play a good 40 minutes in either one of them," McCallie said. "So, we're still trying to play a better 40 minutes. In 22 minutes against DePaul, I really liked Chelsea on the floor and I really think Haley [Peters] has really worked hard too, so it was a natural outgrowth of the two games we had in Durham."
Gray, starting her first NCAA Tournament game, scored 16 points in Sunday's Regional semifinal, shooting 5-of-5 from the floor and 6-of-6 from the free throw line.
"She [Gray] played very smart and savvy," McCallie said following the game. "Chelsea is a terrific player. She wants to get better. She is a hungry player. She makes some very interesting plays on the floor."
Gray savored the moment, soaking in the atmosphere and embracing the pressure of an NCAA Tournament game.
"It was a good experience," Gray said. "We have been in that predicament before with other good games and high class games, so it prepared us for this type of game in the NCAA Tournament. Overall though it was exciting and I liked it."
Peters, who also made her first start in an NCAA Tournament game, felt the difference between starting and coming off the bench.
"It is a little different because when you are on the bench you have time, you get to see how the game is going and things like that," Peters said. "You can come in and know kind of how the game is being played and know what you need to do. I just tried to bring the same energy I had off the bench from the start and kind of relax into the role a little bit. I feel pretty comfortable with it."
"It is something to adjust to and I think it will help against UConn tomorrow," Peters said.
Peters finished with four points and six rebounds in the win over DePaul. The freshman had put together three of her best performances of the season prior to Sunday's game, scoring 14 while grabbing four rebounds in the Blue Devils' win over North Carolina in the ACC Championship game. She then followed that with an 11-point, four-rebound performance against UT Martin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and a 12-point, five-rebound performance against Marist in the second round.
"A couple days [before] we had gone with that lineup in practice [so I knew I would start], but I wasn't worried about it at all," Peters said. "In some ways, I liked coming off the bench because I knew what to expect going into the game. In reality, it's something you hear all the time in sports it's really not who starts but who finishes. It's just a change; add a little bit of energy and things like that."
Peters has been in and out of the starting lineup all season, starting eight games. Sunday was her first start since Feb. 7. Through everything, she has grown as a player and discovered her role for this team.
"I think I have kind of had an up and down year," Peters said. "I think now I have just figured out what my role needs to be, what I can give to my team. I think I have focused better in the last couple of games that we played and focused my energy and just been more consistent on offense, defense and rebounding. It is exciting to be consistent because then you can start to grow and expand it but you can't really start that until you find a baseline."
For Gray, she found her footing early. Honestly, the freshman never truly played like a freshman. From day one the Stockton, Calif., native has carried herself like an experienced veteran.
"Chelsea has been pretty consistent throughout the entire year and she has no fear and she just isn't afraid to make plays or anything like that," Peters said. "She has grown a lot I think in a leadership sense and being a true point guard."
Gray averaged 8.9 points on the season, starting 17 games.
Her highlights include scoring a career-high 20 points against North Carolina, and making the game-winning layup against N.C. State, bringing the Blue Devils back from 20 points.
And then there is the NCAA Tournament, where the freshman is averaging 13.3 points in three games.
None of which was more impressive than her second half against Marist, which probably cemented her spot in the starting lineup.
"I know, looking back on the game against Marist, I did make some defensive plays, and she [McCallie] stresses defense, so that could possibly be a reason why I stepped in the starting lineup, but she never specified, it was just her decision," Gray said.
Not only did Gray make key defensive plays in the Duke win over Marist, but she also flashed her offensive brilliance in the second half, scoring all 13 of her points after intermission.
A trait she has learned from Jasmine Thomas.
"The way she takes over different situations and different facets of the game, whether it's talking on the floor, whether it's a defensive stop, whether it's a steal or a key rebound, just looking at her and that's what I need to do," Gray said. "That is what I take from her."
Whether McCallie sticks with the group that defeated DePaul, or unveils her 12th different starting lineup of the season, doesn't matter to Peters. The camaraderie of this Duke squad is unmatched. All with the same goal in mind, to win, at all costs.
"We kind of have a cool balance with these three seniors, who have been through a lot in the Tournament over their four years, and at the same time we are young with our five freshmen and we just kind of are fearless," Peters said. "It is another basketball game. You have played basketball your whole life. You play to win. It is especially important now and it's exciting because we are all competitive and we all like to win."