By Jim Sumner, GoDuke The Magazine
DURHAM, N.C.-- Joanne P. McCallie began her 12th season at Duke by taking her Blue Devils on a road trip, 12,000 miles worth of road trip.
Duke has already played three games in Florida and single games in Illinois, Maine, Wisconsin and Oregon.
Duke played well in some of those games. They’d like a do-over on some others.
Duke is 8-4 and the losses--all to teams from Power-Six conferences--are galling. You don’t get to the ACC as a player or a coach without having a winning ethic.
But McCallie is playing the long game. Her young team has gained valuable experience and cohesion going into the ACC season.
“I feel like we really connect well and understand adversity well on the road and we’ve just got to put those concepts together and play the same way wherever we play.”
She cites the Oregon State game, where Duke was unable to sustain a hot start and ended up losing to the 11th-ranked Beavers.
“Going out to Oregon State and making that trip and having 8,000 fans on top of you helps prepare you.”
Seven current Blue Devils have started a game this season. Sophomore Jade Williams and freshman Onome Akinbode-James are post players. Junior Leaonna Odom and senior Faith Suggs are combo forwards. Redshirt junior Haley Gorecki, redshirt freshman Mikayla Boykin and true freshman Miela Goodchild are perimeter players. Sophomore guard Jayda Adams hasn’t started yet but is firmly in the eight-player rotation.
That’s five underclassmen getting major minutes.
Boykin is a big addition to the team. An athletic 5-9 guard, she missed most of last season with a knee injury and sat out Duke’s first eight games this season before getting the all-clear.
She had a career-high-equaling seven assists in her fourth game back.
Boykin says she’s put her injury out of her mind.
“My main focus is to help this team. I feel like me thinking about my knee would kind of hold me back so I just focus on the good things.”
McCallie is a believer in the ancient wisdom that good defense will keep you in any game. Duke is allowing just under 61 points per game.
Florida Gulf Coast University came into their game with Duke last Sunday averaging almost 83 points per game, while shooting 42.2 percent on three-pointers.
The Eagles hit 7-for-37 from beyond the arc, in a 57-41 loss.
“I think they’re active and really well coached in their zone,” FGCU coach Karl Semsko said. “I think we were just a little tentative against their athleticism and length.”
“I thought we flustered them,” McCallie added. “They took the threes; they take and make a lot of them but I didn’t think they took them very open. I thought we were contesting and for the most part getting to them and forcing them to take a quicker three.”
Flustering opponents is a good thing and McCallie acknowledges that her defense is ahead of her offense right now.
But she plans to change that.
“As we grow through the season, hopefully we can hit some better rhythm or make some more free throws. I think as we go through the season we’ll get more used to how to play and gain more understanding about how to work the basketball or find people in certain places.”
Youthful inconsistency has hurt Duke at times but the Blue Devils seem to have the pieces necessary to continue to improve offensively.
Gorecki leads Duke with 16.7 points per game, despite shooting only 24 percent from beyond the arc. Once she hits her mean, she’ll become even more dangerous.
McCallie notes that Gorecki has become a complete player, averaging 6.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.8 steals per game, finding ways to help her team even when her shot is off.
Odom has added 14 points per game. She still struggles with consistency on offense but leads the team in rebounds and blocks.
Williams and Goodchild are two younger players on an upward trajectory.
Williams had her first Duke double-double against Florida Gulf Coast, 17 points and 11 rebounds, both career highs.
“I think I was more aggressive offensively this game but I think my rebounding helped a lot.”
Most encouraging, the sometimes foul-prone player picked up only two fouls in 31 minutes.
“I think I am learning to keep my hands up and that I do not need to swat.”
Goodchild, a 5-10 Australian, was just named ACC Rookie of the Week after scoring 34 points in wins last week over ECU and FGCU. She’s hitting 26-of-52 from beyond the arc and her 50.0 percentage leads all freshmen nationally.
“I think with each game we are growing as a team, moving forward, and, learning to play with each other each time,” Goodchild says of that upward trend,
Goodchild, Boykin, Gorecki, Adams, even the 6-2 Odom have all taken turns bringing the ball up and initiating the offense.
McCallie is more than okay with this point-guard-by-committee.
“I think depth in the point guard spot is important. I like Miela playing point. I like Neah (Odom) playing point. I like Mikayla playing point and on occasion Haley. I think we are a team where we have different talents and we really need to look to use them. The more versatility we have as a team, we are going to be better as a team. If you can play multiple positions and show confidence in them, that’s giving yourself a better chance, whether it’s overseas or in the WNBA. We’re going to work and grow and we’ll see different people handle the ball at different times throughout the season.”
McCallie says controlling turnovers will be a big part of maximizing the offense and winning in the ACC.
“We tried to make a hard pass instead of an easy pass,” she said after a 22-turnover game against ECU. “We had 16 turnovers in the first half. That’s unacceptable. We don’t want to accept that and the guards don’t want to either. We need to think about what we could have done offensively to get those possessions back.”
The ACC is typically strong this season, with Notre Dame (2nd), Louisville (3rd) and NC State (9th) ranked high in the AP poll.
Duke jumps into the deep end of the pool, opening conference play at NC State this Thursday and hosting Louisville on Sunday.
This is Williams’ second time around the league and her message to her younger teammates is basic; rebound, defend, hustle.
“I would say to our freshmen that they need to refocus and listen to what we want as a team rather than individual goals.”
McCallie thinks her young but growing team is up to the task.
“Bring it. I mean, that’s what we need. There’s no better way to get a focus and a chance to play teams that have been successful. It’s an opportunity and a great opportunity and something we look forward to.”