DURHAM Joanne P. McCallie has largely avoided the external pressure, if only because women’s basketball in the Triangle commands modest media attention compared to other pursuits. But she knows the narrative, recalling with a touch of amusement hearing Dean Smith say he was regarded as a “choker” after his North Carolina squads went to the Final Four six times from 1967 to 1981 without winning a national championship.
A similar reputation attended Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski after taking four teams to the Final Four between 1986 and 1990, only to come away without a title. Of course both men’s programs ended those droughts with multiple NCAA championships, muting criticism of their Hall of Fame coaches.
Now it’s the turn of McCallie and her Duke women’s program to confront similarly high expectations, stoked by rosters rich in talent that produced extended runs of excellence but without the ultimate validation of a national title.
“The challenge for us is to get the best out of us,” McCallie said prior to the season, “and if we can and get everybody involved, I do believe the process will take care of itself. I’m looking for a shift. Something’s going to shift. Something’s going to go – boom! And you’ll know it when you see it. That will be the beauty of it.”
A prime chance to create such a shift, to make noise that reverberates nationwide, occurred on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke, undefeated and ranked second in the country, hosted undefeated and top-ranked Connecticut, the colossus of the women’s game and the defending national champions.
“We want to get to the top of the mountain,” McCallie said. “We don’t want to be a part of the top, we want to go to the top. All of these experiences are paving the way for us.”
Duke’s women have made a remarkable 19 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances – 13 under Gail Goestenkors from 1995 through 2007 and six out of six years under McCallie.
Barely missing a stride with a change in leadership and playing style, the team has advanced at least to the Sweet 16 in 15 of the past 16 years and captured eight ACC Tournament titles since 2000, including three of the past four. Duke’s women also have won 24 or more games every season since 1998and have finished each of those years in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll.
They’ve also become the perennial leaders in ACC women’s attendance, drawing more fans than the Boston College men and usually more than the Miami men.
But, good as they are, the Blue Devils’ achievements historically fall short. Four times they reached the Final Four under Goestenkors without earning an NCAA title, including a loss in overtime against Maryland in the 2006 national championship contest. More recently, they’ve lost in the Final Eight under McCallie for four straight years.
“It’s frustrating,” senior sharpshooter Tricia Liston said of Duke’s stumbles on the threshold of the Final Four. “I think that we are the type of team that belongs to be past there. Given the opportunity, we can prove that. As for us in the past, I think it’s just a lack of focus in the end, and the mental strength. Because we have the talent, we have the physical ability. It’s just really putting it to the test.”
A key hurdle, both for other women’s programs generally and for Duke in particular, has been UConn, eight times the NCAA champs under head coach Geno Auriemma.
“They are the New York Yankees,” TV basketball commentator Debbie Antonelli, an N.C. State grad, said of Auriemma’s program. “They are a professional franchise. They have the look, the swagger, the confidence.”
The Huskies reached the last six Final Fours and lost only 13 games over the past six years combined. Other programs have mounted challenges – including new ACC member Notre Dame and Louisville, joining the league next season – but none for a sustained period since Tennessee won consecutive titles in 2007 and 2008. “I’m curious to see, not just Duke, is women’s basketball actually falling further away from Connecticut, or are we getting closer?” Antonelli wondered.
McCallie, to her credit, has scheduled the Huskies six times in seven years at Duke. The results have not been encouraging – in six previous meetings, counting one in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, her teams lost by an average of 23 points and scored more than 50 just once. Last year’s game at Storrs, Conn., was close at halftime before the Devils snapped like a dry twig and lost by 30.
Such margins are not peculiar to Duke. North Carolina met UConn five times since 2008 and lost all five by margins ranging from 11 to 51 points. This year’s Huskies average 40 more points than their opponents, with five double-figure scorers led by forward Breanna Stewart and seniors Bria Hartley, a guard, and All-America center Stefanie Dolson.
Duke has its own wealth of proven talent, from sophomore guard Alexis Jones to junior center Elizabeth Williams, a two-time All-American, to seniors Liston, Chelsea Gray and Haley Peters. Gray, another two-time All-American with a rare knack for passing the ball, is back after a dislocated kneecap short-circuited her season and her team’s ambitions in 2013.
“I think, honestly, the pressure is mounting, and it’s not even Christmas yet,” Antonelli said of Duke. “The senior class, they’ve lost one game in Cameron, and it’s against Connecticut. They haven’t lost an ACC game there.”
McCallie, a Big Ten product, immediately introduced a more physical approach and a matchup zone to Duke’s program. Lately her teams have become more versatile and more adept and uptempo offensively. They’ve beaten plenty of ranked opponents – this year California, Purdue and Oklahoma.
But the Devils are still looking for a defining victory, one that catapults them to the forefront of the game’s elite. “The past is the past, but we’re trying to get over that hump,” Liston said. “We’re trying to do something we haven’t done before.”
A visit from Connecticut provides a prime opportunity to move in that direction.
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email firstname.lastname@example.org to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less