By Kyle Corwin, GoDuke the Magazine
It has taken the crossing of two different paths for Duke women’s basketball to once again realize its potential, discovered through the tenacious leadership and skillful dominance of one of the most prolific duos the program has ever seen: The Splash Sisters.
Redshirt seniors Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell have not only helped continue the team’s tradition and legacy; they have also proven their dedication to paving the way for those who will soon follow in their footsteps.
None of this would have been possible, of course, without the arrival of Brown, who chose to redirect her career compass toward the heart of Durham, N.C., following a decision to leave her dream school.
Ironically enough, Brown, being the talented athlete that fans see today on the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium, was not initially set on basketball growing up.
“I didn’t get into basketball until I was 9 or 10,” she admitted. “I used to play with the kids in the neighborhood but I was always all over the place in other sports. I was never forced into basketball, and I think just one day I thought, ‘Let me just play.’
My dad was like, ‘Do you really want to play basketball?’ because I wasn’t the most naturally-gifted athlete or basketball player when I was younger.”
Living in Florida at the time, the Suwanee, Ga., native saw her future developing quite rapidly as success in the sport starting coming to her more naturally. As a result, major life changes became necessary.
“I got on my first legitimate AAU team when I was in seventh grade in Orlando, playing with the girls I grew up with,” said Brown. “In eighth and ninth grade I started playing on the Nike Circuit in the bigger tournaments on a team out of Atlanta and that’s how we made the transition from Orlando to Atlanta, because we realized that the basketball opportunities were better there.”
It didn’t take long for her talent to catch the eyes of those within the ACC, Brown’s dream conference destination.
“My recruiting process was pretty different, as I committed after my ninth grade summer,” recalled Brown. “Maryland was always my dream after they won the national championship in 2006. And Maryland of course was in the ACC at the time so I was like, ‘I’ll get to play in the ACC and I’ll be able to stay close to home.’ I went to their elite camp and I loved it. They told me that they were interested but they wanted to watch me a little more and take some more time. A couple days after that, they called me and offered because they said they couldn’t wait, and that was just my dream coming true.”
Following big changes to the landscape of various conferences around the country, Brown saw her Terrapin team make the move to the Big Ten, something that she admits greatly diminished her desire to remain there.
“The two years I did spend there were amazing, but the Big Ten move just killed it for me,” Brown said. “My dream was never to play Northwestern and Iowa. I wanted to play North Carolina and Florida State, so the decision to leave had a big part in that. My family was also never able to come up to Maryland, so the two years of them not being able to come watch me were really hard. I knew the ACC was where I wanted to be, and when I announced that I was transferring, school had already been let out. My teammates weren’t around, and I didn’t want to make a scene about it. I did it very quietly, and I didn’t really talk to the media about it because I wasn’t interested in that.”
The rest was history, as Brown soon thereafter made the decision to don the blue and white of Duke University for the remainder of her collegiate career.
“Academics were the number one reason why I came to Duke,” Brown acknowledged. “My parents and I decided that basketball-wise, because of them and the people we knew that I’d be okay because they knew how hard I worked and that we’d make it work wherever I went, so we decided that academics needed to be the number one priority.”
On the court, Brown’s impact was immediate, jumping into the heat of things following her NCAA-required year of sitting out.
“I knew that coming here, I had limited time to make my mark, so the fact that I’ve been able to leave my mark in all these different types of ways has been awesome,” said Brown, who, in such a small window of time, has landed herself on a number of record lists for the Duke women’s program.
Just this year, Brown reached the 100 steal mark, making herself the third Blue Devil in team history to accomplish such a feat in a single season, joining Duke legends Alana Beard and Jasmine Thomas.
Much of this success, as Brown would tell you, is credited to teammate Rebecca Greenwell.
And despite warnings from those around her telling her that joining forces with another extremely talented player might cause friction, Brown knew things would work out for the best.
“It was funny because when I picked to play here,” Brown reminisced, “a lot of people told me that I wouldn’t be able to play with her, and I was like ‘Why?’ They told me ‘She needs the ball all the time, and you need the ball all the time’ but I said, ‘We’re going to make it work.’ I wouldn’t pick a school with a player that I didn’t think I’d be able to play with. Rebecca gets it, and I’ve never met another player who gets it like I do and I think that’s why we connect so well on the court. She’s been the most fun person I’ve ever been able to play with.”
As one might guess, Greenwell couldn’t agree more about the enjoyment that the prospect of playing with Brown brought her, and she is thankful that her journey led her to Duke where such an opportunity could present itself.
The Owensboro, Ky. native got into basketball around the same age as her teammate, treating it as an option among her many other interests before making the decision to dive into it headfirst.
“I started playing basketball when I was 10 years old,” said Greenwell. “It didn’t really run in my family. I played baseball and soccer, and then my parents signed me up for basketball and that ended up working out for me. I was always a foot taller than everyone else so I would just run back and forth and make a lot of layups. My parents saw that I had a really good talent for it and they thought I could be something special so they kept me in it.”
Such remarkable success at a young age resulted in Greenwell receiving an offer from the University of North Carolina in the seventh grade. It was a year later that she would find herself at a Duke camp — a camp that would eventually be followed up with a rivaling offer.
Making the decision to attend Duke, Greenwell quickly realized what serving this university has meant to her, both on and off the court.
“Duke is such an amazing university, both with academics and athletics, so it feels great to represent something that has such great tradition and is bigger than yourself,” Greenwell said. “Because of that, you really have to carry that into your everyday life. It’s a huge honor, and it’s been awesome to go to school here as a student. And to play basketball here has been an even bigger blessing.”
Part of that blessing for Greenwell has been growing alongside of teammates throughout the entirety of her Blue Devil career.
“I feel like every year I’ve gotten close with our team, and this year especially is probably the closest I’ve ever been with my teammates,” observed Greenwell. “It’s not just a couple, it’s the entire team. I think that’s also what makes Duke special — the network of people you meet here, where everyone’s so motivated.”
Playing with Brown has not only granted Greenwell the opportunity to expand that network, but to foster her abilities to lead and compete.
“We’re both extremely competitive,” said Greenwell, who set the all-time 3-point record at Duke earlier this season. “So, to have someone out there who wants to win as much as you is really special. I think that can take a team a long way.”
Similar to her fellow Splash Sister, Greenwell was dealt initial uncertainty surrounding the possibility of playing with another high-caliber talent. However, looking back, the Duke veteran knew she would have no problem welcoming Brown with open arms.
“She’s probably the best player I’ve ever played with, so to have her on my team is a huge blessing,” said Greenwell. “She makes my job a lot easier. She’s very, very talented and I think we really click on the basketball court. We read each other well, and we know what the other is going to do. When she first got here, I knew of her, but I didn’t know her that well. But once she got here, I realized she’s a very unselfish player, she really cares about the team, and she wants what’s best for the team.
We hit it off right away when we started playing, but I think each year we’ve grown closer and closer, and right now is probably the best we’ve ever played together.”
At this point in the season, Greenwell’s feelings about the team’s mindset would surely be echoed by each one of her teammates, including Brown.
“We just need to keep going, keep playing together,” Greenwell said. “I think we can make a lot of noise in the postseason and go far. We’re clicking on all cylinders right now and playing our best basketball of the season. It’s the best time to do that.”
If you combine the fire that characterizes Brown’s play with Greenwell’s leadership that is certainly rooted in “The Duke Way,” you get the intangible hybrid that will undoubtedly serve as the leading force for the Blue Devils as they enter the final stretch of their 2017-18 campaign.
And although these two stars didn’t wind up at Duke at the same time or in the same manner, the important takeaway is that they’re here now with one final run in them, ready to make history.