DURHAM, N.C. – The second-ranked Duke Blue Devils will focus on their defensive play when they host the top-ranked team in the country, the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies, in the Jimmy V Classic at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday.
Both teams come into the contest with perfect 10-0 records and have only 36 voting points separating them in the latest Associated Press top-25 rankings.
It’s a battle that will take place amongst two programs that have been ranked in the top-10 for 10 of their last 12 meetings, and their 13th match-up once again presents itself as a must-watch event.
Or does it?
”From our standpoint, there’s a whole season to play,” McCallie said during the team’s press conference held on Monday.
“I think the one-two thing is already doing what it should do – drawing attention to the game. I think it’s very important that women’s basketball grows and continues to grow and get more coverage. It seems like we’re getting less coverage than more, so it’s important. If you have an opportunity to have two good teams go after it, that’s a good thing. That’s the story on the media side. For us, this is one game. We’ve got a lot of games to play. That’s it, sorry to disappoint. It’s one game and we’ve got a whole lot after that. It’s not March or April. It’s a chance to really test ourselves.”
According to Duke senior guard Tricia Liston, the excitement surrounding the game is different for the players than it is for media and fans.
“I don’t think we’re as pumped as the media,” Liston said when asked if she was excited to play the Huskies again.
“It’s more of a bigger deal for the outside people – thinking one versus two – but for us, we have a big week ahead of us. We have three games to play and we’re coming off a game where we didn’t play our best. We’re really trying to focus on that next chance that we get to play in ourselves because we made a lot of mistakes in the Oklahoma game that we’re ready to fix up and shore up in this game.”
Call it nonchalant or just business-as-usual thinking from Duke’s top scorer and three-point specialist as she leads the team in scoring, averaging 18.3 points per game.
Liston’s cool attitude and approach to the game is not one of arrogance or indifference, but one that exhibits the maturity that this Blue Devils team has developed under head coach Joanne P. McCallie.
They expect to play tough teams in challenging games as they continue their quest to claim a national title.
That doesn’t faze them after advancing for the past three years to the Elite Eight in postseason tournament play.
This team knows how to win, but now the players want to and must push up their play at both ends of the court to the next level.
“Obviously when you play excellent teams, very good teams, you have to keep playing, you have to play through, and you have to finish,” McCallie said.
“That’s a nice challenge. It’s a great opportunity at this time in December – a little bit different than January, February, March and other times of the year. It’s a great opportunity to see what we can do.”
Though they are moving along undefeated, that could change quickly when they face Connecticut.
If they don’t improve upon their self-prescribed weaknesses, their defensive play, they risk losing to the Huskies again.
If they continue to lose to top-ranked teams due to poor defensive play, then they can’t reach that upper echelon of women’s basketball where teams like Connecticut have rested for many years.
Coming off one of their worst defensive performances of the season, escaping the Oklahoma Sooners’ grasp with a 94-85 win on Dec. 8, McCallie drew a positive outcome from it.
“We’re getting better and we’ve evolved and held ourselves accountable,” McCallie said.
“The disappointment we had in the Oklahoma game showed a lot of maturity to me because we actually won that game. But the second half wasn’t reflective of how we played. The team was like, ‘let’s get out of here’. That was just terrible basketball from our perspective, so I think the standards have gone up in terms of what we’re trying to do. If the players have put their standards up, that’s a good thing. Then you’re chasing something a little more special and I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Sure, a perfect record should be something to be proud of, and when you’re teetering on the brink of jumping up to claim true elite status in NCAA women’s basketball, there’s very little room for error.
The Blue Devils have played in many big games in recent years and have won their share, but have also lost their fair share, particularly the ones that could have put them up to the next level.
Playing Connecticut has always presented that opportunity, but they have fallen short each time.
According to Liston, the reason why Duke hasn’t toppled one of the giants of women’s basketball, owner of eight national championship trophies, is a simple one.
“We’ve never really played a full 40 minutes,” she said.
“We’ve gotten outside of ourselves or lost focus. I don’t really know what exactly that’s due to, but I definitely would say that we haven’t put two good halves together since we’ve played them in the past. That really hurts us. You can’t play one half against a good team and expect to win.”
The past two contests between the two teams has seen Duke play a strong first half but come up short in the second.
Last season in Storrs, the Blue Devils lost 79-49, while in 2012 Duke came up short in a 61-45 loss to the Huskies.
Even though she’s led the Blue Devils in scoring in seven of their ten games this season, Liston knows what she must personally do to be successful against UConn – play defense.
“I think my rebounding needs to be very consistent and strong, both on the offensive and defensive glass,” Liston said.
“We need to keep playing. We need to finish a full 30 seconds of defense and finish with the rebound. We can’t expect to just have the ball in our hands our out-jump them. We’ve really got to work and close off the possession with a rebound.”
When Duke has played that full 40-minute game, it’s been its defensive play that has transitioned well to boost an explosive offense that has generated the winning margins that the Blue Devils have posted to date.
Should the Blue Devils play that perfect defensive game against the Huskies, then a positive outcome will be more likely to occur than it has in recent years.