No. 5 Duke women learning to play without Gray

No. 5 Duke is running out of chances to learn out how to play
without its injured point guard.

Chelsea Gray made the Blue Devils go. But she’s lost for the
season with a knee injury, and they’re still trying to get
comfortable playing without her.

Duke (26-2, 16-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) has already sewn up
the top seed for next week’s league tournament.

But the Blue Devils have only three games worth of experience
without Gray, going 2-1 in that stretch. That makes the
regular-season finale against No. 15 North Carolina (26-4, 14-3) on
Sunday important for a reason that goes beyond the rivalry: It
marks their final consequence-free opportunity to figure things out
before tournament play.

”We’re a December team when everybody else is March 1,” coach
Joanne P. McCallie said Friday. ”That doesn’t come that quickly.
There haven’t been enough games and game experiences. We’re getting
comfortable, like, we’re figuring things out together as a team,
but this isn’t like magic. … I just think it’s a process. This is
not an overnight deal.”

Maybe not, but the Blue Devils don’t have the luxury of time.
Not with Selection Monday a little over two weeks away.

”If our focus isn’t there now, it’ll be the end of the year for
us,” forward Haley Peters said.

For most of the season, Duke was on the short list of teams with
legitimate Final Four expectations. The Blue Devils opened with 16
straight wins, were the nation’s last unbeaten team in either
gender and appeared destined for New Orleans.

Much of that was because of the versatile Gray, the ACC’s leader
in both assists (5.4) and steals (3.6) and one of only two women’s
players in league history with multiple triple-doubles.

But everything changed when she was hurt Feb. 17, suffering a
freak injury as she was fouled while chasing a rebound, and they’ve
been hard to figure out ever since.

Duke won its first two games without her, beating then-No. 19
Florida State at home before a 75-59 win at then-No. 8 Maryland
that seemed to show the Blue Devils might be just fine after
all.

Then came a 69-65 loss at unranked Miami on Thursday night that
brought up all those under-the-surface concerns.

They managed just four steals in that game – a low for the
program in six seasons under McCallie – and lacked the energy and
focus that Gray could be counted upon to deliver.

”Chelsea will get six steals in a game like that and turn it
around,” Peters said. ”Everyone sitting back and waiting for
Chelsea to do something is not something we can afford.”

North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell suggests the Blue Devils
have an embarrassment of riches in their backcourt – most notably,
junior Chloe Wells and talented freshman Alexis Jones, who can play
both guard positions.

While forward Richa Jackson took Gray’s place in the starting
lineup, three guards – Wells, Jones and 3-point specialist Tricia
Liston – are essentially replacing Gray by committee.

”I don’t know anybody in the country that can have two kids
step in there and replace somebody as good as … those two (Jones
and Wells) can,” Hatchell said.

Jones, who averages eight points, is scoring 11.3 in the three
games without Gray. Liston’s numbers have dipped slightly without
Gray, scoring 12.9 points for the season but just 10.3 in the last
three games.

Duke, which ranks second in the league with a 75-point scoring
average, has scored in the 70s just once without Gray after
reaching that mark in nine of its final 13 games with her.

Clearly, the Blue Devils miss Gray’s knack for finding an open
player. They miss her energy, which often translated into baskets
in transition.

And perhaps more importantly, they miss the qualities that are
impossible to quantify.

”We got to the point where, if I’m making a call, (Gray) was
already making it,” McCallie said. ”That’s pretty special stuff.
Now I’m making the calls again, and teaching others what calls they
need to make. It’s different. But it’s part of the process for this
new season for this group. We can’t jump over that. We’ve still got
to plow through it.”