By Jim Sumner, GoDuke.com
DURHAM, N.C.-- The Duke women’s basketball team ended its 2017-’18 team in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, with a loss to Connecticut.
Lexie Brown, Rebecca Greenwell, Erin Mathias and Bego Faz Davalos used up their college eligibility in that game.
Brown led Duke is scoring, minutes played, assists, foul-shooting percentage and steals. Greenwell led in three-point percentage and rebounds per game. Mathias was in Duke’s top three in rebounds, blocks and steals. Brown and Greenwell were Duke’s only All-ACC players, Brown a consensus All-American.
Big losses, to be sure.
But that’s the nature of college athletics. Players graduate, new players come in, complementary players step up their games until they are no longer complementary players.
Head coach Joanne P. McCallie knows the drill.
“I don’t care what we lost. I love my great seniors from last season. But that’s the nature of things. Time passages.”
Duke returns 10 players, while adding four freshmen.
But Duke lost 60 percent of its points from last season and somebody has to step up and replace them.
Redshirt junior wing Haley Gorecki and junior forward Leaonna Odom are at the head of the line, two players who have demonstrated an ability to score at a high level against top-tier competition.
Now, Duke will need them to do it on a regular basis.
The versatile Gorecki is a six-footer, a native of the Chicago suburbs, capable of playing all three perimeter positions. She has been plagued by injuries in her three seasons at Duke, surgeries on both hips and a torn labrum. She played only 14 games as a freshman in 2016, then received a medical hardship in 2017. She sat out last season’s final nine games.
“I may be cursed from a previous life,” she jokes.
But for one marvelous 11-game period in the middle of last season, Gorecki was hale and hearty and demonstrated her skills. She averaged 17.1 points per game over that span, hitting 36-of-75 three-pointers. Gorecki scored 25 points against eventual Final-Four participant Louisville, 28 against Virginia Tech, a career-high 29 against North Carolina.
“She’s a go-to player,” McCallie says of that stretch. “She was a difference maker. We missed her terribly.”
Gorecki has recovered completely from her injuries, practicing without restrictions.
She describes her game.
“I like to play fast. If I have an open shot, I’ll take it. I have deep range. Making a perfect pass is the best feeling. I like having the ball in my hands. I like to grab a loose ball and go coast-to-coast. But I can play off the ball.”
In a curious statistical anomaly, Gorecki converted exactly 42.3 percent of her two-point and three-point attempts last season.
“I feel comfortable with the three-ball and driving to the rim,” she says. “But I’d like to develop my mid-range shot more.”
Gorecki says she’s improved her leadership skills, knowing which players respond to an encouraging word, which respond to a more assertive form of criticism.
“I like to get on players I can get on.”
Odom says Gorecki is “the best player on the team, in my opinion. Everybody is going to remember her name.”
Gorecki returns the favor, calling Odom potentially “the best player I’ve seen. If she can play with confidence, nothing can hold her back.”
Odom is from the small, coastal California town of Lompoc. At 6-2, she’s arguably the best run-jump athlete McCallie has coached at Duke. Thin but long, she says she’s modeled her game after that of Kevin Durant. When fully engaged, she’s a classic matchup-nightmare, too quick for the big players, too big for the quick players.
But Odom has had to work to become more assertive.
“She often deferred last year to Lexie and Becca,” McCallie notes. “That’s over. No more deferring.”
She had five games last season with three or fewer points.
But even when Odom wasn’t hunting shots, she found other ways to help her team. She only scored six points in a big win over Ohio State. But her 13 rebounds and four blocks keyed the upset. She had 38 blocks, 36 steals and 55 assists last season, while leading Duke in field-goal percentage and total rebounds.
It all came together for Odom in the post-season. She had a career-high 25 points against Belmont, 16 against Georgia and led everyone with 22 points against top-seeded Connecticut, adding eight rebounds.
“She showed she was one of the best players in the country [in the NCAAs],” McCallie says. “It speaks of her work ethic. No one is more of a team player; Super-talented, super able, now a junior, now getting it more.”
Odom says she’s ready to build on that.
“I kind of woke up, when the stakes were the highest. The team that we are [in 2019]. I’ll be asked to do more. I’m going to have to own it, have fun with it. You end up being who you are.”
“She’s now tasted that. She’s not an attention seeker. What she’s interested in his playing the game, playing ball with her friends. It’s really simple for her. But I think she grew, as a sophomore, to take over the NCAA Tournament. That’s a natural development when someone with talent works super hard. She’ll continue to grow.”
Odom has never made a three-point shot in college and shot less than 60 percent from the foul line last season. She’s working hard on both, along with getting to the line more often. Repetition and confidence are the keys, she says,
Odom is likely to be a nominal power forward but one with the freedom to play all over the floor
“I will be on the perimeter more. That should benefit me, benefit the team.”
A veteran now, she’s also working on her leadership skills, seeking to impart her work ethic to the younger players.
“When it’s my time to speak, I’m willing to speak.”
Duke has other weapons. Redshirt junior point guard Kyra Lambert is returning from ACL surgery that kept her out of last season, as is redshirt freshman guard Mikayla Boykin, who played only 10 games last season. Senior forward Faith Suggs
is the kind of glue player every great team needs. Jade Williams is a mobile, 6-5 sophomore just figuring out how to maximize her gifts. Australian freshman Miela Goodchild is an elite shooter.
But Duke’s best chance of playing deep into March and even April, likely depend on a healthy dose of Haley Gorecki and Leaonna Odom taking that big step from complementary player to star.