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Duke women again come up short of Final Four

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Once again, Duke proved it was one of the best eight women's basketball teams in the country.

Just not one of its Final Four.

A fourth straight season ended in the round of eight for the Blue Devils after they were beaten by top-seeded Notre Dame in the Norfolk Regional final.

So now, as Duke enters the offseason, it can only wonder what-if?

What if star point guard Chelsea Gray hadn't suffered a freak season-ending injury in late February?

And what if the Blue Devils didn't consistently struggle to put together 40 consecutive minutes of strong basketball?

Coach Joanne P. McCallie said her team ''had great spurts at times'' but wondered if her team ever really played as well as it could have.

She said the Blue Devils ''were fighting, but you have to fight for 40 minutes at this level. We've been through so much this year. It's really been a hard year. It's hard to let go of this team wondering if we have ever reached our full potential.''

That became much harder to do after Gray was hurt.

She dislocated her right kneecap while chasing down a rebound against Wake Forest on Feb. 17, and that injury immediately raised doubts about whether the Blue Devils were really legitimate Final Four contenders.

That pushed freshman Alexis Jones - who slid over to point guard - into an even bigger role in one of the nation's most productive offenses.

For the most part, the Blue Devils (33-3) kept on humming. They won eight of their first nine games without Gray, who went on to share the Atlantic Coast Conference's player of the year award, while also claiming the league's regular-season and tournament championships on their way to yet another No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But for the fourth straight year, they came up one step short of their first Final Four since the 2006 team reached the championship game. Notre Dame became the third straight No. 1 seed to beat Duke in a regional final.

''It's really hard to cope with'' falling short again, star post player Elizabeth Williams said. ''We felt like we deserved to be here, but we did not play a full game that reflected that. Unfortunately, we see that result now.''

This is shaping up to be an important offseason for the program.

Much of the attention will be focused on how Gray's knee heals after she had surgery March 14. She's part of a nucleus of five juniors who have only one more chance to get the Blue Devils over that hump and into the national semifinals.

That group includes leading 3-point shooter Tricia Liston, who hit 80 3s; top rebounder Haley Peters, who averaged 7.6; and three of the team's top four scorers.

Only one senior departs - backup center Allison Vernerey - and a promising group of freshman is on the way in, including shooter Rebecca Greenwell - who in January set a national high school record by making 17 3-pointers in a game.

But McCallie wasn't ready yet to look ahead toward the future. Not without one last look back at the way her team's season ended, with a six-point halftime lead slipping away against a Skylar Diggins-led Notre Dame team that used a big run early in the second half to keep the Blue Devils at bay.

''This one should stick with us for a long time,'' McCallie said. ''I think there is a time to go back and celebrate all of the good things this team has done. If you do that too quickly that's a problem.

''You need to own up to what happened, why it happened and think about it a little bit. I think this team will do that and will better off because of that. I think that's what it's all about.''

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Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at (at)JoedyAP.

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