Duke begins pursuit of 1st Final Four since ’06

Duke wants nothing more than to give center Elizabeth Williams a

chance to play at home in the Norfolk Regional.

The path for the second-seeded Blue Devils to get the Virginia

Beach native back to her home area for the Norfolk Regional starts

with their game against 15th-seeded Hampton – which would also like

to get back to home.

”That just brings a smile to my face because of Elizabeth,”

coach Joanne P. McCallie said. ”The idea of being in Elizabeth’s

home area and being a part of that, that’s just icing on the cake,

but that’s something we have to earn, obviously. … But that’s

quite a motivator.”

Duke (30-2) takes on the Pirates (28-5) on Sunday in the opener

of a four-team subregional that features three of the nation’s best

offenses and one of its top defenses.

The winner will face either seventh-seeded Oklahoma State

(21-10) or 10th-seeded DePaul (21-11).

”We are trying to earn the chance to play with each other

again,” Duke guard Haley Peters said.

The Blue Devils spent the entire season in the top 10 and were

thought to be a serious contender for a No. 1 seed and a spot in

their first Final Four since 2006 – until a knee injury to point

guard Chelsea Gray cast some doubt on their credentials.

But freshman Alexis Jones slid over from shooting guard, and

Duke has barely missed a beat, winning six of seven games while

cruising to its third Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title in

four years behind Jones – who averaged 18 points in winning the MVP

award at the tournament. Her three highest-scoring games have come

in Gray’s absence.

”She has stepped up tremendously for us,” guard Tricia Liston

said.

Now it’s up to one of the nation’s top defensive teams – Hampton

– to figure out a way to slow her and a Blue Devils team that

averages nearly 76 points.

The Pirates, who have made the tournament in each of coach David

Six’s four seasons, have reeled off 19 straight wins while allowing

a Division I-fewest 47.2 points per game.

They’ve given up more than 60 points only twice and it hasn’t

happened since November, when Florida Gulf Coast scored 70. But

they’ll be tested by a Duke team that has been held to fewer than

70 only eight times.

”We can’t turn the ball over, so we’ve got to manage the ball

really, really well,” Six said. ”We have to attack Duke and we

have to keep them off the boards. And we certainly have to defend

at a high level, but we try to do that every night, anyway.”

Hampton, only the second program to win four straight

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournaments, has victories over

LSU, Mississippi State and Boston College, yet was given a No. 15

seed and a ticket to Durham to face Duke for the second time since

2010.

And neither the Pirates nor McCallie were entirely thrilled with

their seeding. The Duke coach called Hampton ”the greatest No. 15

seed I have ever seen in my life.”

”My mom used to say, `It’s not what they call you, it’s what

you answer to,”’ Six said. ”Nothing that will happen this weekend

will make me think we’re a 15 seed, but we can’t cry over it.”

The other matchup should feature plenty of scoring: Oklahoma

State scores nearly 74 points per game while DePaul averages

71.

The Cowgirls, who won the Women’s NIT last year, have the least

NCAA tournament experience of any team in this subregional.

They’re in the field for the first time since 2010 and have only

two players – seniors Toni Young and Lindsey Keller – who have

played in the tournament.

Oklahoma State won its first 11 games, finished in a tie for

fifth in the Big 12 and lost to No. 1 overall seed Baylor in the

semifinals of the league tournament.

”Building the program, winning the WNIT helped us gain six more

games last year in a tournament setting, and I believe it was a

definite help for our team this year,” coach Jim Littell said.

”The natural progression was for us to build from winning the WNIT

last year to making the NCAA tournament and, hopefully, winning

some games in the NCAA tournament.”

DePaul, which lost to Connecticut in the quarterfinals of the

final Big East tournament of its kind, made the NCAA field for the

11th straight year under coach Doug Bruno behind leading scorer

Anna Martin, who averages 15.7 points but missed eight midseason

games with a bone bruise.

This is a time of transition for the Blue Demons, who joined six

other Catholic schools in breaking away from the Big East and

forming a league that will use that name.

Perennial powers Connecticut and Notre Dame are headed elsewhere

– Notre Dame to the ACC, UConn to the still-unnamed conference –

and Bruno says it is ”absolutely incumbent on somebody in the new

Big East to step up and become what (the Irish and Huskies) have

been.”

Of the four new Big East teams in the tournament, none earned a

better seed than Villanova, a No. 9.

”There’s some good strength here, of the teams moving forward

in the Big East,” he added. ”This is a strong league in and of

itself.”

Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at (at)JoedyAP.