Alexis Jones running the show.DURHAM, N.C. - Duke hasn't missed a beat with
Since sliding over to play point guard after Chelsea Gray was injured, the flashy freshman has played with supreme confidence - and her versatility and leadership have kept the Blue Devils flying high entering the NCAA tournament.
``Basically, (I'm) just using my skill ability that I have and basically trying to make the team just go like I know I can,'' Jones said.
Jones will have to keep it going for a few more weeks if the second-seeded Blue Devils (30-2) are to reach their first Final Four since 2006.
They begin tournament play on Sunday against 15th-seeded Hampton (28-5) in the first round of the Norfolk Regional.
She seems to be at her best when facing the best opponents. Jones' three highest-scoring games have all come against nationally ranked teams and in the absence of Gray, the Atlantic Coast Conference co-player of the year.
Her run was capped by a 24-point performance against North Carolina in the ACC championship game, led to her selection as the MVP of the tournament and prompted some high praise from Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell.
``From what I can see, they're probably a better team with Alexis Jones out there than they were with Chelsea Gray,'' Hatchell said. ``They're doing a lot of things with Alexis at point that they weren't doing when Chelsea was there.''
When Gray went down with a dislocated kneecap on Feb. 17, the question popped up immediately - how could the Blue Devils possibly be as good without their star, pass-first point guard?
But Jones - with a quick first step and the ability to create her own shot - has done plenty to soothe those concerns. Duke is 6-1 since Gray's injury.
``I think it's just more of the teams that we play, and more of the creating that I can do to help our team,'' Jones said.
She scored a then-season high 15 points in a win at No. 8 Maryland and outdid herself with 22 against North Carolina in the regular season finale before taking over the ACC tournament, averaging nearly 18 points in three games while leading the Blue Devils to their third league title in four years.
``I tell you, it's inspiring, isn't it?'' coach Joanne P. McCallie said. ``She's one of the best listeners I've ever coached and as she developed with her dad coaching her, she must have developed that skill, and it has allowed her to be beyond her years in maturity and also in skill level.''
Jones developed those moves back in her hometown of Midland, Texas, out of necessity.
Her father and first coach, David Jones, said she started playing at age 4, performed the same drills as her brother who is nine years older than she is, and played with seventh-grade girls while she was in the fourth and fifth grades.
She came up with her repertoire while playing against the boys back in Midland, including current Baylor wide receiver Antwan Goodley.
``They don't like to lose, so they treated me like a guy - they never treated me like, `Oh, she's just a girl, she can't play,''' Alexis Jones said. ``Guys are a lot quicker and they like to dribble, so just watching them play, I think, I developed my skills by playing one-on-one a lot.''
Of course, Jones considers herself lucky that she's even alive to play basketball.
When she was a seventh-grader in 2007, David Jones was driving her and four other people from Midland to a practice when their car hit some ice near Sweetwater and flipped three times before coming to a stop. The five passengers were unharmed, but David Jones broke two vertebrae in his neck and was paralyzed from the chest down.
Suddenly, he couldn't coach her anymore and that ``kind of threw her for a loop because she didn't know who to go to anymore.'' But she matured and became comfortable with new coaches when the family moved to Irving, Texas. His health improved to the point where he could coach again, this time for his youngest son's youth team.
He came to Durham for his daughter's first college game back in November, and flew to Greensboro two weeks ago for his daughter's breakout performance at the ACC tournament.
He hopes the next time he sees her play in person will be in two weeks in New Orleans - at the Final Four.
``She just had to find her niche up there at Duke to fit her game in with the rest of the players so she can help them win,'' David Jones said. ``I think, now, she has.''
The Pirates rolled through the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance and became the second team in league history to go undefeated in league play and win the conference tournament. Hampton, which has won 19 straight, leads the nation in scoring defense at 47.2 points per game, is second in defensive field-goal percentage (31.6) and third in 3-point defensive field goal percentage (23.8).
"It wasn't what we wanted, but it's what we got," said coach David Six, whose Hampton team lost to Duke 72-37 in the first round in 2010. "I think we're better than a 15 seed."
MEAC player of the year Keiara Avant will be the offensive focal point for the Pirates. She averages 16.1 points and 10.2 rebounds, and is 10th in the nation with 20 double-doubles.
The winner of this game will play the winner of No. 7 seed Oklahoma State and 10th-seeded DePaul in the second round on Tuesday.