The stage was set, and the timing was perfect. Almost on cue, ACC player of the year and possible national player of the year Lindsey Harding came up with a steal on a Rutgers inbound pass with 5 seconds left and flew to the hoop. As Duke fans have seen time and time again, Lindsey contorted her body and managed to draw a foul with 0.1 seconds left. And then, the unthinkable happened. The 75% free throw shooter, team captain, and indefatigable leader missed two in a row, both off the back rim, and the #1 ranked NCAA women's basketball team had been eliminated by upstart Rutgers, a team they had trounced by 40 points earlier in the year. It was yet another NCAA tournament disappointment for a team--and a coach--who has seen their fair share of them.
The game itself is not worth a significant amount of dissection. Duke again struggled offensively, as its talented backcourt shot a combined 7-21. Alison Bales' final game was a strong one, as she led the Devils with 21 points. The contest was similar to the Duke vs. Temple game, but this time, the opponent would not go away. Rutgers stayed in the game with big shots and refused to quit when Duke jumped out to a ten-point lead early in the second half. Matee Ajavon was a Blue Devil-killer in scoring 16 second-half points, including a crucial three-pointer that cut the Duke lead to a single point with 47 seconds to play. After Wanisha Smith got stripped following an offensive rebound, Epiphanny Prince scored with 20 seconds left to put Rutgers up by one. Lindsey Harding turned the ball over on the subsequent possession, but was able to get a steal on a long Rutgers pass with five seconds remaining. This set the stage for heartbreak, as Lindsey missed both of them. But enough about Lindsey and missed free throws, as Duke's loss was the unfortunate conflux of a number of factors that emerged long before she stepped to the line on Saturday afternoon.
1. Did the team peak too early? It is a question that is hard to define (is it possible for a team to peak too early?) and even harder to answer. After the Devils dominated Maryland in Cameron in mid-January, sending a loud notice to the rest of the country that they were for real, they were flying high. This continued well into mid-February, as the team coasted to win after win. Things seemed to change around the time of the second Carolina game, possibly a little earlier. The offense was not quite the same, the energy of the team seemed to ebb and flow. This was especially apparent in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, Abby Waner's two dazzling performances aside. It is said that the champions in early April are the ones who peak at the right time. Unfortunately, the Devils may have peaked a month or two early.
2. Lack of half-court execution--As mentioned earlier, the Devils' offense began to lag around the end of February, especially in the half-court. Given the athleticism of the backcourt, Duke's fast break offense was still potent, but no team can survive solely in transition. While some of this struggle in the half-court seemed to be related to execution, it also seemed to be due to adjustments made by opposing defenses. Teams looked to limit Harding's driving ability by collapsing in the lane and daring her to make long jumpers. They face-guarded Waner with an athlete and tried to limit her open three-pointers, which sometimes frustrated her into taking forced shots. They were content to see if others could beat them. Duke was not able to make the necessary adjustments, scoring in the 60's or lower five of their last seven games (in contrast, the team failed to crack 70 points only four times the rest of the year). Duke's defense really never let them down; it was offensive execution in the half-court, usually a staple of Coach G-led teams, that was the Devils' downfall.
3. Coaching rumors--Much has been made about the rumors surrounding Coach G--will she stay, will she go?-- as well as the responses by key figures in the story, such as AD Joe Alleva. The question is, how much did these rumors negatively affect the team? For one thing, as was documented above, the team had not been playing with their midseason fire well before any of these rumors emerged. However, it certainly did not have a positive effect, and it appears as if the story was not handled well on a number of fronts. According to sources, Coach G did not definitively put to rest such rumors when talking to the players, instead telling them basically to ignore the reports and focus on the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, that is much easier said than done, especially when dealing with 18-22-year-olds that you recruited and with whom you have a special bond. Joe Alleva's tepid statement of "no-confidence" regarding Coach G's future certainly seems to have been a mistake and may be (or have already been) the final straw if she takes another job elsewhere. As anyone who works with college athletes knows, the collective psyche of a team is a fragile thing, and the whole story regarding Coach G's future with the team must have had a negative effect on it.
So where to from here? For Coach G, the answer is unclear. Does this loss heighten her resolve to get over the hump and win a national title at Duke, or does the loss, as well as the comments of Alleva, convince her that she's banging her head against a wall here? The team certainly seems to be well-stocked for the future. Despite losing Bales and Harding, star power (or at least potential star power) remains with the likes of Abby Waner and Wanisha Smith. Chante Black should return strong from her knee injury and give Duke another anchor in the middle--along with a very strong offensive post game. Add in an improved Carrem Gay, a more confident Brittany Mitch (who could see herself starting at PG), more experience for Joy Cheek and Bridgette Mitchell, and a talented class of freshmen, and Duke should again field a highly successful team. Let's hope that Coach G is there to lead them finally to the championship that even managed to elude Coach K for years.