DURHAM – For Duke’s senior class, this wasn’t how this year was supposed to end.
The Blue Devils seemed ready to take that next step to the Final Four after losing in the regional finals the previous three seasons.
But their careers ended with a different historical footnote: The Blue Devils’ first NCAA Tournament loss at home since 1996.
The Blue Devils (28-7) ended up with no healthy point guards after season-ending knee injuries to Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones. Coach Joanne P. McCallie said there was “a lot of pride, a lot of hurt” in the locker room following a 74-65 loss to DePaul in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
For the second straight year, Duke heads into the offseason wondering what could have been.
Gray’s senior year ended in January when she broke the same kneecap she dislocated late in the 2012-13 season.
A month later, Jones tore her left anterior cruciate ligament in a loss at Notre Dame.
Without them, this wasn’t the same Duke team that was picked in the preseason to win the new-look ACC and had been considered a candidate to break through to its first Final Four since 2006 after falling in four straight regional finals.
For seniors Tricia Liston, Haley Peters, Richa Jackson and Gray, this was a tough way to go out.
“We’ll definitely take a lot out of this,” center Elizabeth Williams said. “It was definitely tough, everything we went through, but I think the seniors did a good job of not using it as an excuse, and we were ready to go even further.”
The Blue Devils went to a patchwork approach to make up for their absences, with Ka’lia Johnson and Liston, the nation’s top three-point shooter, helping bring the ball up the court.
“They all got asked to do so much in so many different areas,” McCallie said.
Those injuries helped bring an end to some of Duke’s long winning streaks at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Top-ranked Connecticut gave the Blue Devils their first home loss in two years. Notre Dame became the first ACC team to beat them at home since 2008. North Carolina claimed its first win at Cameron since ’08. And finally, even after Duke earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year, DePaul became the first team to beat Duke there in the tournament since San Francisco won there 18 years ago.
The Blue Devils should be in good shape going forward. Rebecca Greenwell, who set a national high school record with 17 three-pointers in a game, likely will be healthy after a knee injury caused her to redshirt. Young post players Oderah Chidom and Kendall McCravey-Cooper showed promise, and Williams, who blocked an ACC-best 101 shots, will be back for her senior year.
The Blue Devils figure to remain among the contenders in an ACC that will stay tough with Louisville replacing Maryland. But as they learned this year, nothing is guaranteed.
“A lot happens in life,” McCallie said. “They’re young kids and they should think that everything’s possible in the world, but they should also be prepared for difficulties. The way they handled those difficulties this year was truly an inspiration to me.”