DURHAM, N.C. – They each took to the stage to share their experience with the Duke Blue Devils women’s basketball program.
It was the team’s awards celebration that took place at Scharf Hall on Monday where seniors Mercedes Riggs and Amber Henson highlighted the hopes, dreams and realities of their collegiate playing careers.
Both came in following different paths, but ended up in the same place – at Duke and part of a nationally recognized and ranked program that has worked towards winning a national championship title.
However, the final season for both players ended not only without a national championship, but without a chance to play in the 2016 NCAA tournament.
They leave the Blue Devils program as part of the first team in 21 years to not play in the postseason.
A hard pill to swallow, yes, but will each be worse off for it?
As much as winning a national championship is a critical success indicator at the collegiate level, what both Riggs and Henson do leave Duke with is a degree in their hands.
There’s no doubt that they hurt over what’s happened this past season, and they expressed it so.
The challenges and shortfalls they experienced, as told in their words to their coaches, teammates, and invited guests resonated of the message of learning from adversity and what playing at Duke meant to them.
Riggs, a transfer from Salt Lake Community College, used a ‘letter to her freshman self’ format to describe what she experienced throughout her collegiate career.
Coming out of high school, she was a Utah-Valley player of the year, an MVP guard and three-sport athlete standing at five-feet-seven inches.
But one who had wasn’t sure whether her playing abilities and accomplishments would carry her to the next level.
They eventually did, albeit at a junior college.
“Was Salt Lake Community College where you envisioned yourself to be?” Riggs orated.
“Heaven’s no. But there are stepping stones you have to take in order to end up where you want to go. Is it hard to swallow your pride, knowing you were barely recruited out of high school? Well definitely. But there’s something you should know. That feeling of hurt, that pain you feel deep in your gut – that is what is going to push you to work harder than you ever have in your entire life.”
For Henson, the start of her look back at her time at Duke began with a reference to something head coach Joanne P. McCallie said during the team’s 2015 first-round tournament game against Albany – one that ended in a close 54-52 victory.
“When you’re trying to climb a mountain through a patch of fog, you don’t just pack things up and turn around and go home.”
A highly touted three-time Parade All-America honoree and Florida Gatorade Player of the Year, Henson has first-hand of experiencing and playing through adversity in college.
The six-foot-four-inch forward came out of high school with a patella injury that was operated on during her freshman season.
Jokingly referring to is as a ‘knee condition’, Henson ended up undergoing a total of six surgeries during her five years at Duke.
The Blue Devils program invested in her, and hoped that she could eventually help the program reach the goals she and every incoming player expect to achieve at Duke.
“Coming out of high school, my mountain top was to win an ACC championship, regional championship, national championship, ACC honors, All-American honors – things that I aspired to do. I have to say that after that third or fourth surgery, that mountain top had become to just get on the court and play basketball. My mountain top was very unreachable and it seemed like it was easier (for Duke) to spend a lot less money on me if I was to call it quits.”
Henson finally made it onto the court by her junior season in 2013-2014, but could never perform to the level that was expected of her due to continued injury-related issues.
“I tried to figure out what in the world was wrong with me,” Henson continued.
“I got words like career-ending, low probability to return. I’m just so thankful to everyone to help me defy those odds.”
She thanked the coaching staff.
“I can’t imagine seeing a player go through such a battle to try to play basketball and keep up with injuries like that, and still believe that I could still play through that. You guys never put me on the backburner. You helped me out and I’m grateful for that.”
Riggs talked of suffering pain, injuries and challenges she faced as a player and how her team at SLCC was knocked out of the postseason conference tournament in her freshman season and the national tournament the following year.
She talked of how her coach at SLCC questioned her performance, and “was concerned about not reaching expectations” following that freshman year.
“Don’t let this discourage you,” Riggs continued in her self-directed dialogue.
“Rather, let that drive you to work even harder, build deeper relationships with the people around you – your coaches, but especially your teammates.”
When learning that Duke was interested in signing her, Riggs said she didn’t really know how to process it.
“You will listen intently, but you won’t think much of it; after all, how serious could Duke be about you?”
Upon arriving on campus, she struggled as she described it.
“You will especially feel an imaginary sense that your teammates don’t believe in you quite the way you do. Don’t let this discourage you. Just because you’re not as athletic or as talented as all of them, your work ethic will shape your character in more ways than you could possibly imagine. You keep working hard, you keep getting up before the crack of dawn, you keep grinding. Your work ethic will give you respect you so wishfully desire.”
Riggs continued her honest depiction of her past two seasons with the Blue Devils – sitting at the end of the bench at times, figuring out her identity on offense, putting in extra shots after practice hoping to and eventually getting the chance to score key baskets in key games.
“You’ll be grateful for every single opportunity you have to put on that Duke jersey. Before every game you will look at yourself in the mirror, tap the name on the front, and remember how fortunate you are to be at this great institution. Despite the few minutes you may get on the court, you will make the most of every single second you are granted. You will play with every ounce of passion you can possibly find. This will be your identity for the two years you are here. Enjoy that.”
Even after getting a taste of NCAA Tournament experience during her first season at Duke, one in which the Blue Devils ended in a 65-55 Sweet 16 loss to Maryland, Riggs talked of not being fully invested over the summer headed into her senior year.
“You will have many rough days trying to figure out your purpose to this team and with going through all that you have. Taking it one day at a time, you will find yourself again and you’ll be able to overcome this. How do you do it, you ask? You do it by forgetting about yourself and giving to those around you. You do it by working hard every day, not to earn playing time, but to make those around you better. You do it by giving your whole heart, body and soul every single second of every single day.”
It was all passionate stuff, particularly coming off this season in which Duke missed qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
This past season, she didn’t get a chance to play as much as she wanted and saw younger players take that time.
“Your character, your patience, and your passion for the game will be continuously tested.”
“You will refuse to sit there and waste the opportunity you have to put on that jersey. You will take your role and you will run with it. You’ll be what your teammates will reference you as the epitome of a player-coach. You will test your teammates’ character and willingness to get better, even if that means you push them so far, that they are ready to throw some punches. “
“That actually happened, but she still loves me for it,” Riggs continued.
“One of the reasons you’ll come to Duke is to be a part of something special. Go to a place that is common for you to go to the national tournament. Not only go to it, but do well in it also. Unexpectedly and unfortunately, you won’t have the opportunity to do any of this your final year. You’ll sit watching the Selection Show, heart pounding, eyes watering, and pain surging through your body as the reality sets in that your career as a basketball player is officially over. It will take some time, but you will be okay because at the end of the day, we have to remember that basketball is just a game. You will realize that by daring to come to Duke, you are able to become the women you always wanted to become. My dear freshman self, please don’t give up. Continue to push yourself beyond what you can believe you can take. Continue to give everything of yourself of this game and to those around you because in the end, you’ll become a better person than you could have ever imagined.”
Adding to Riggs’ honest and inspiring notes of a short two-year career at Duke, Henson’s comments added to and enhanced them.
She wrapped up both players’ experiences with her final inspiring words.
Referring to a speech that a four-star general presented to the team earlier in the season, Henson gave her teammates a direction to follow going forward:
“It takes a lot of personal determination, a positive attitude, and the conviction that your current situation doesn’t have to be your final destination,” Henson concluded.
“With regard to all of the adversity we faced this season, and the adversity that is still standing at our doorstep right now, make it matter. Make it matter that we’ve been hurt. Make it matter that we’ve been down. Make it that matter that we missed the NCAA Tournament. Make it matter that people are leaving, and coming and going. Make it matter that we missed the Tournament and make it matter that our program’s under attack right now because it matters to me. So, next year when you’re standing at mid-court with confetti falling, just know that everything we’ve done this year, it mattered.”
With their words, Riggs and Henson each left the podium following their last performance in front of their coaches, teammates, and invited guests proving that their collegiate career with the Blue Devils may have not achieved the on-court success they desired, but most definitely all that otherwise came along with it.