Duke women hope to climb heights with stronger roster next season

Apr. 03, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

What heights could the Duke women’s basketball team have reached?

We’ll never know, nor will they — maybe that’s the story of their season.

And Tuesday night’s 87-76 loss to top-seeded Notre Dame in the Norfolk Regional final shone a spotlight on each of the issues that ended a season in which the Blue Devils may have over-achieved, considering the circumstances.

“I think there is a time for that,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said after the Blue Devils fourth consecutive regional final loss ended a 33-3 season. “This one should stick with us for along time.

“I think there is a time to go back and celebrate all of the good things this team has done. But if you do that too quickly, that’s a problem. You need to own up to what happened, why it happened and think about it a little bit. I think this team will do that and will be better off because of that. I think that’s what it’s all about.”

The Blue Devils won the ACC regular-season and tournament championships, then scared the Irish for most of Tuesday night’s game at the Ted Constant Convocational Center.

In the end, Notre Dame and All-American Skylar Diggins were too much for the Blue Devils. Diggins finished with 24 points and nine assists on her way to claiming regional most outstanding player honors.

Foul trouble by freshman point guard Alexis Jones kept her off the court for 14 minutes. But she was pressed into that role Feb. 17 when junior All-American Chelsea Gray suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Jones fouled out with 2:20 remaining and missed the Blue Devils’ final desperate push.

“All I’m saying is, in order for us to keep growing, we can’t have things like that happen,” McCallie said. “At any level that I know, the highest level, your best players can’t be fouling out.

“I’m just saying, it’s too bad. People were asking, ‘Why didn’t you score as much (in the second half)?’ Lex is out of the game.”

But a good bit of the Irish offense was generated in the post by Natalie Achonwa, who finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds, along with several alley-oop plays finished by Jewell Loyd (17 points).

“Once (Alexis Jones) went out of the game, we stopped focusing on defensive stops,” sophomore center Elizabeth Williams said. “It turned into a game of trading buckets, and that is not the type of game we wanted to be in. For us, I think we lost a little bit of focus. ...

“Defensively, we did not communicate well, did not talk enough when someone was in the high and low post.”

Williams had help inside from Allison Vernerey, the only senior on the roster, and Haley Peters. Yet Peters’ natural position is more of a wing player, and she hit only two 3-point shots in the final minute when the Blue Devils attempted a late rally.

So why was the 6-3 Peters inside so much?

Injuries sidelined a pair of 6-4 post players — redshirt freshman Amber Henson and true freshman Katie Heckman — who missed the entire season with injuries. It’s the second year in a row that Henson, the younger sister of former North Carolina star John Henson, has missed the season with knee problems.

“We’ll never know,” McCallie repeatedly has said about how the season could have gone with all her players available.

As it was, Duke’s only regular-season losses were at Connecticut, 79-49, and at Miami, 69-65 — its only ACC loss.

The Blue Devils ran through the ACC Tournament, taking a 19-point win over UNC in the title game, then found a way to advance through their first three NCAA Tournament games.

Making the fourth straight regional final was little consolation, though.

“I guess that is sort of an accomplishment, but it seems more like a loss right now,” Vernerey said of her career at Duke.

Every other player returns for 2013-14, along with one of the top recruiting classes in the country.

This isn’t the first season to end in the Tidewater for the Blue Devils, as the storied careers of legends Alana Beard and Iciss Tillis ended in the same building nine years ago. The 2004 Duke team talked openly about pursuing the NCAA championship as its destiny — yet it’s a goal that remains.

“We’ve never won a national championship, so let’s get that straight,” McCallie said. “You aspire to it. ... We’re aspiring to be at that level. ... We’ll be a lot better team next year.”