BERKELEY, Calif. — Minutes before tipoff in this first tilt of the season between two Top-10 teams, Cal unveiled its 2013 Final Four banner to a rousing reception from a packed Haas Pavilion.
As the noise swelled around them, Duke senior Haley Peters calmly huddled her team together and issued some final instructions for the game. Fellow seniors Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston followed suit, and presented their own thoughts. They wanted to take Cal out of its comfort zone. They wanted to keep the Bears from what they do best.
Duke head coach Joanne McCallie said this team lives for these sorts of “sticky environments.” McCallie felt they didn’t get enough of them last season, when the Blue Devils had started off 16-0, winning each game by at least 10 points.
The Blue Devils are ranked No. 2 this year, in large part because they’ve returned all five starters and almost 94 percent of their scoring from last season’s team that captured the ACC crown and cracked the Elite Eight. Against a very talented but less seasoned Golden Bears team, the Blue Devils were a bastion of discipline, and flexing impressive reserves of experience and muscle to walk away with a resounding 70-58 victory. Despite early foul trouble, Cal, ranked No. 9 in both major national polls, made it a game, leading by single digits for much of the first six minutes, and closing the gap to a single point (24-23) late in the first half after Duke had led by as many as a dozen. At the half, the game was still well within reach, with the Blue Devils on top 30-23 as the teams headed to the locker room.
But after the Bears' Justine Hartman netted a jumper to open the second stanza, Duke storied defense held the home team scoreless from the field for the next six minutes. By the time Rashanda Gray ended the drought with a layup at the 13:45 mark, the Blue Devils had sprinted out on a 15-4 run (all four Cal points came at the free-throw line) to make the score 46-33 and take permanent control of the game. From there, though the home team battled back with spirit, each time they threatened to make a dent in Duke's double-digit lead, the Blue Devils would respond with a steal, a trey or a fast-break layup to quiet the crowd and reestablish the separation.
“That’s what we do,” said McCallie. “We’ve played a lot of tough games in a lot of hard places, and we’ll continue to do that this year. There was good defense, and good rebounding, and that’s always a good place to start.”
For senior Chelsea Gray, it was a particularly poignant place to start. The two-time All-America guard grew up in the East Bay Area. On Friday night, her family had hosted the team for a pre-game dinner. On Sunday, Gray, freshly back from the knee injury that ended her season early last year, Gray scored an efficient game-high 22 points on seven-of-12 shooting, while adding four rebounds, five assists and two steals, in front of the host of family and friends in attendance at Haas to lend their support.
“It’s one thing to have ‘All-American’ by your name, it’s another to go two-of-four from 3 like Chelsea did,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “She hit big threes, and she got to the free throw line," where Gray knocked down six of her eight attempts.
After the game, Cal senior Afure Jemerigbe was asked about Gray, who was her best friend when the two had starred at St. Mary’s High in Stockton, Calif. Jemerigbe recalled Gray as a daring guard ready to fire off a flashy pass at any moment.
To some extent, that remains true. Gray did try a behind-the-back pass, but it came late in the contest, with the game well in hand. The pass was stolen, and after that Gray went right back to her diligent, steady approach. Duke doesn’t beat you with flash; they do it with discipline and intelligence.
Liston scored 13 second-half points to finish with 15, matching Gray with seven-of-12 field-goal shooting. She also had seven rebounds — including four on the offensive glass. Liston is a terrific shooter (she hit a school-record 80 three-pointers last season), but against the Bears, she got the bulk of her points by picking her spots and driving to the basket, where she made a number of deft finishes in traffic.
“I was just trying to play off the defense, and see how they were playing me,” said Liston. “A lot of times they were overrunning me, so it left lanes to the basket. I was just trying to stay attacking and get to the basket a little more.”
During the post-game press conference, McCallie singled Liston out for her second-half adjustments. When Duke tinkers, they get it right — or more precisely, they get it better.
|Duke three-point specialist Tricia Liston posted 13 of her 15 points in the second half, when the Blue Devils took control of the game for good. (File photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography)|
The same went for Peters, who’d also been held in check in the first half. The 6-3 flex forward scored four quick points to start the second half, keying an 11-1 run that gave Duke a 41-28 lead. Cal would come no closer than nine the rest of the way.
That’s where Duke’s experience manifests itself most impressively. These players are constantly analyzing the game and making requisite adjustments on the fly. To wit: when the All-American Gray gets the ball at the top of the key, she immediately registers her defender and the location of the closest help defense. If she likes the matchup, or if a teammate’s cut has created a sliver of space, she’ll attack.
The Blue Devils do the same on defense. They were disappointed with the way they’d ended the first half, when Cal went on a thrilling, Brittany Boyd-infused 11-0 run to draw to within one point (24-23). They were irritated with failed conversions and the inability to stop the Bears from doing what they do best — which, as McCallie put it quite perfectly, is "Go, go, go, go, go!"
So they immediately responded to that run with back-to-back scores to get back their breathing room. They ratcheted up the intensity of their matchup zone, frequently extending their pressure to half court and beyond — speed bumps for the jet-quick Boyd, who’d sprung for 23-second half points in the two teams' meeting in Durham last season.
Don’t think Duke didn’t remember that. They kept the Bears’ preseason Player of the Year candidate from scoring in the second half until just over four minutes remained in regulation. They worked to keep the Bears off the boards, and ended up out-rebounding them 46-39, including 18 offensive boards to Cal's 16.
Even with junior All-American center Elizabeth Williams and sophomore point guard Alexis Jones enduring poor shooting days (they combined to go three-of-19 from the field), Duke won comfortably.
So their shots weren’t falling? Jones and Williams followed their teammates’ suit and found other ways to make an impact. The 6-3 Williams, named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in each of her first two seasons in large part because of her shot-blocking (she is already third on the all-time Duke list with 224 swats) had just one block on Sunday, but she altered many others and frequently forced Boyd (13 points, 4-of-12 shooting) to peel off from her blistering drives to the hoop and look to kick out passes instead of finish strong at the rim — a key component of Boyd’s effectiveness. Williams grabbed a game-best 11 rebounds, including six on the offensive end.
Jones grabbed six boards of her own to go with five assists and two steals.
And while McCallie did not go very deep into her bench, with the bulk of the playing time spread among just seven players, senior wing and sixth woman Richa Jackson stepped up to fill the scoring void, finishing with 13 points on six-of-seven shooting.
“That’s why Duke is at the top of the game right now,” Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “Their players know their roles, and they make plays. When it’s not Williams or Jones, it’s some other player coming off the bench.”
Sunday's Other Top-25 Action
Sunday's action elsewhere in the Top 25 saw one upset, another near-miss, and a bundle of mismatches as all but three nationally ranked programs (the exceptions being No. 16/13 Texas A&M, No. 20/18 Michigan State, which gets the ball rolling Monday against No. 6/7 Notre Dame, and No. 19 Colorado) have now officially gotten their 2013-14 seasons underway.
- No. 14/16 Dayton 93, Iowa 97 (OT). It took extra minutes to do it, but the unranked Hawkeyes clipped the wings of the No. 14/16 Flyers, 97-93 (OT), keeping the hardware from their annual Hawkeye Challenge safe at home. Dayton fell behind early on, trailing by as many as 15 in the opening half, and still lagged by double digits, 81-70, with 6:45 left in regulation. But that's when Iowa, who relies heavily on the three, began to go cold, missing its next three three-point attempts and allowing the Flyers not only to even the score but to surge ahead by five with under a minute to go. In the final 32 seconds Iowa's Ally Disterhoft knocked down two three-throws and Samantha Logic drained a three with just nine ticks left on the clock to knot the score at 90. A would-be Dayton buzzer-beater missed its mark, sending the game to extra minutes. It looked like the Flyers had left it all on the floor in regulation, however, as they scored only one field-goal, a layup by freshman Celeste Edwards, in the entire overtime period. Junior Andrea Hoover led five Dayton players in double figures with 23 points, one short of her career high. Kelley Austria notched 20 for the losing side. Junior center Bethany Doolittle paced the Hawkeyes with 22 points, plus five boards and six blocked shots. But Samantha Logic was named tournament MVP after posting 16 points, including the game-tying trey, and handing out a Carver-Hawkeye Arena-record 14 assists, despite having lost half a tooth after being popped in the mouth in a late-game collision.
- No. 18/23 Purdue 63, Ball State 57. Speaking of cold-shooting Boilermakers narrowly missed an upset of their own, overcoming 22.2-percent (eight-of-36) in the first half and holding off a late-game Ball State rally to eke out a narrow, 63-57 victory after trailing by as many as nine in their regular-season opener Sunday. Tied at 26 apiece at the half, Purdue head coach Sharon Versyp must have put a magic elixir in the Gatorade over intermission, as the Boilers improved their marksmanship to 43.3 percent (13-30) in the second frame. KK Houser led the Boiler comeback, matching her career high with 21 points, including three-of-seven from long distance. Whitney Bays came off the bench for 13 points, while Liza Clemons tacked on 10, plus six boards. The one place the Boilers weren't cold? The free-throw line, where they went a collective 17-17. Brittany Carter's 19 points paced three Ball State players who finished in double digits.
- No. 24/22 Georgia 45, Presbyterian 30. Looking for a respite from the spate of one-sided track meets that typify the early-season schedules of many teams? You certainly would have found it in this game that defines the term "grinder." Andy Landers' teams are known for getting it done with defense, but though the Bulldogs held the unranked visitors to just 20-percent shooting (11-55) from the floor and a paltry 15.8 percent (three-for-19) from the arc, he expressed displeasure with 'Dawgs' on-ball defense. His offense should give him more to worry about, however. Georgia shot the ball only marginally better than Presbyterian, netting 16 of their 50 attempts from the floor (32 percent) and just two-of-17 (16.7) from three-point range. Indeed, even without a hand in their faces, they didn't even shoot that well, knocking down less than half (11-25) of their penalty shots. Georgia sophomore Merritt Hempe was the only player for either side in double digits with exactly 10 points. Yawn...
- South Carolina 68, Louisiana Tech 45. Dawn Staley may be a guard's coach, but it was her post players who brought home the bacon Sunday. In another low-scoring defensive slugfest, the Gamecocks picked up their second win of the young season behind double-doubles from junior forward Aleighsa Welsh (14 points on six-of-eight shooting and 10 rebounds) and freshman center Alaina Coates (12 points, 10 rebounds in just 19 minutes). Six-four junior forward/center Elem Ibiam just missed recording a third double, posting 11 points and eight rebounds, and adding the punctuation mark with three swats, and Tiffany Mitchell repped for the guards with 10 points and three assists. JaQuan Jackson came off the bench to lead Tech with 13 points, but on just five-of-16 field-goal shooting.
- No. 7/8 Kentucky 96, Wagner 57. This "game," which takes Sunday's Golden Creampuff "honors," must have been scheduled while Coach Matthew Mitchell was still licking his wounds from last season's nationally televised opening rout at the hands of Baylor.
- No. 11/14 Oklahoma 89, Wichita State 70. The Sooners advanced to the third round of the preseason WNIT behind a career-high 24-point outing from junior guard Sharane Campbell, who went a perfect nine-for-nine at the line, and got balanced scoring from the rest of the usual suspects. Alex Harden matched Campbell's game high with 24 for the Shockers. OU moves on to host No. 25 Gonzaga in the WNIT semifinal Thursday.
- No. 25/RV 68 Gonzaga 91, Tennessee-Martin 54. Kelly Graves' crew, ranked No. 25 in the AP poll and drawing heavy votes from the coaches, looked considerably better in their second-round Preseason WNIT game on Sunday than they did in Friday's opener against Idaho. Senior guard Haiden Palmer logged her second consecutive 18-point performance, this time on seven-of-10 shooting including two-of-three from downtown to lead the Zags into the WNIT semifinal. Keani Albanez added 14 points and eight rebounds and the bench pitched in with 13 points from Sunny Greinacher and 10 from Stephanie Golden. Tiara Caldwell and Heather Butler put up 13 and 12, respectively, for the Skyhawks.
- No. 15/17 LSU 80, St. Joseph's 64. Junior guard DaShawn Harden led the Tigers for the second straight game, posting a game-high 19 points, including three from downtown, and snatching five steals, as LSU cruised to an easy win in its second-round Preseason WNIT matchup with St. Joseph's. But it was St. Joe's Erin Shields who led all scorers with 23 points, knocking down a staggering seven of 12 from downtown. LSU moves on to the WNIT semifinal, where it will face the winner of Monday's contest between No. 5 Louisville and Quinnipiac.
- No. 13/15 Penn State 78, Fordham 61. Maggie Lucas buried four three-pointers to move into second place in the Big Ten's all-time three-point scoring list (297), finishing with 23 points to lead the Lions to an easy win over visiting Fordham. Though the game could not be described as close, the Rams did keep it interesting behind 20 points from Erin Rooney. Next up for the Lions -- a date with No. 1 UConn who will visit University Park a week from today.
- No. 23/20 Iowa State 84, North Dakota 55. The Cyclones blew past North Dakota in their season opener on Sunday, led by a career-high 32-point explosion from senior forward Hallie Christofferson, who made it a double-double with 11 rebounds. Sophomore guard Nicole Blaskowski came off the bench with 14 points and 10 boards to log her first career double-double. Madi Buck logged a team-high 16 points for the visitors.
- No. 21 Oklahoma State 74, Texas - Arlington 35. In a mismatch almost as lopsided as Kentucky's scrimmage with Wagner, this one was all but over midway through the opening half as the Cowgirls put up 27 of the game's first 32. Four OSU players notched double figures, led by Brittney Martin with 16. The Mavericks didn't break the double-digit mark as a team until the last five minutes of the first half, but by game's end both Briana Walker and Laila Suleiman had logged 11 points for the visitors.
- Huskers humble Bruins in opening day action
- 2013-14 ACC women's basketball preview: Notre Dame will challenge Duke and Maryland for title
- 2013-14 PAC 12 women's basketball preview: Cardinal picked to win conference; others threaten