DURHAM, N.C. -- Heading into Sunday’s first round NCAA matchup with Hampton University, Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie was well aware of the ability of the team she was about to face.
“Hampton is the greatest No. 15 seed I have ever seen in my life,” said McCallie. “They are absolutely terrific.”
In their 67-51 win the Duke players and fans also learned how good Hampton was and how the intensity of the game gets turned up in NCAA play.
“I’ve been a mid-major coach before and I am sorry for Hampton that they are a 15 seed,” said McCallie, who led her Blue Devils to their 31st win of the season against just two losses. “They are trying to get their first NCAA victory and they should have been a higher seed, they earned that by what they did over the season, they earned that by who they beat, they did everything right and they had to come play Duke at Duke. They are a fantastic team and some of those women can play on any team. They might be the most athletic team we played including some of our ACC teams.”
Those student-athletes from Hampton just happened to meet a Duke team that heralds some of the best women’s basketball players in the country.
This is a Duke team that lost just two games all season and captured the ACC Tournament title with a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year in Elizabeth Williams, the ACC Tournament MVP in Alexis Jones and the third leading three-point shooter in the country in Tricia Liston.
That threesome proved to be the difference in the game as Liston led all scorers with 20 points, Williams poured in another 18 and Jones tallied 11 points while dishing out 10 assists.
The Blue Devils needed everything these players and their teammates could offer in order to hold off a very athletic and hustling Hampton University team that captured 28 victories and went through the MEAC season with a perfect 16-0 record.
At the end of the first half, it looked like all the hustling and work by Hampton just would not be enough to overcome the No. 5 ranked Blue Devils. A 32-15 lead and a poor shooting performance by the Pirates of just 21.2 percent (7-of-33) made it look like the Pirates would be making a quick return trip home.
“Our defense in the first half was very, very good,” pointed out McCallie. “Not as good in the second half, but the intensity was there.”
The intensity in the second half was there because the Pirates turned up the heat on the Blue Devils.
“I thought that we just attacked more,” explained Hampton head coach David Six. “We saw some things, but it’s very difficult, obviously, to hear in there to make the adjustments on the fly. We got the ball in the lane a lot more. We attacked a lot more.”
That attacking pulled the Pirates to within 10 points at 46-36 with 11:42 left in the game and then to within six points with half the second half still left to play.
This comeback fueled the voices of over 600 Hampton fans and band in Cameron Indoor Stadium creating quite an exciting environment in the historic arena.
“It was a great environment,” pointed out McCallie. “I really appreciated the Hampton fans. They were amazing, challenged us and also challenged our fans to be louder. I thought the band was incredible. The environment was honestly not a home court environment. It was just a great women’s basketball environment.”
“When I came out and saw all the Hampton fans at the game I got a little tear in my eye,” explained Six. “They were definitely there for us.”
With 10:14 left in the game the Pirates Keiara Avant made a move down the right baseline and an up and under move made the score 46-40. Hampton had gotten the game back to within six points.
“We were just trying to play within our offense,” explained Avant, a 5-11 senior. “It wasn’t really one set person that would try to get open shots. When we got a chance to cut the score there was not set person to say, ‘Hey, I’ll take that shot.’ We were just playing within our offense, running screens and whoever was open would get that shot.”
A mid-range jumper by Williams, back-to-back layups by Haley Peters and suddenly the Blue Devils stretched their lead back to 13 points with 4:39 left in the game.
In the second half the play of the Blue Devil bench was vital with key buckets from Peters and outstanding play by junior forward Richa Jackson.
“Haley (Peters) was very, very aggressive and very attacking, particularly in the second half,” said McCallie. “She made some critical plays, a baseline out-of-bounds play. There might have been a sideline as well. Some things that Haley does, she’s such a competitor. She was ready to go when there was a challenge in the game, and that’s just how Haley is. She loves to fight and she was a terrific leader for us – vocal and by action.
“I thought Richa [Jackson]’s second half was more what she’s about,” she continued. “She was aggressive, she rebounded, and she attacked. I was really glad to see Richa fight back in the second half because she did have a slow start.”
In the end it was the Blue Devils attacking the basket and scoring points in the lane that led to the victory.
“It was important for us to get points in the paint,” explained Williams. “Try to get the easiest shots we could get, to get the ball in the basket and maybe get fouled, and to get points; we also needed to get stops on the other team which helped fuel the offense.”
“We need to be more poised and more consistent with our defensive mentality throughout the entire game and not let those few minutes come by us and stay up the whole game and play with the same energy,” added Liston.
McCallie was pleased with the way her team played against a tough opponent in the first round of a national championship tournament.
“The last thing you want is to get the impression that things are easy because they’re just not,” she explained following her 23rd NCAA Tournament win. “This is a winner’s tournament. Everybody that’s in is a winner. Our kids were ready. They understood the challenge at hand. You’ve got to really enjoy the moment in these games and enjoy the challenge because you’re always challenged in these games. The days where there are complete blowouts are gone. You look at some of the scores, they’re tighter than they’ve ever been, and that’s just a credit to the great coaching and the players out there.”
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