Unbeaten Duke faces stern test at UConn
It’s only the middle of January, yet Duke’s women’s basketball team faces a test that will likely impact how it’s March will go.
The final remaining unbeaten men’s or women’s Division I team, the No. 4 Blue Devils head north to face power Connecticut tonight (7 p.m., ESPN2) in Storrs, Conn.
The No. 3 Huskies (16-1) are an established part of women’s college basketball’s elite class. Connecticut owns seven NCAA championships since 1995, the most recent coming in 2010.
Baylor, with incomparable center Brittney Griner, won last year’s NCAA championship to cement its place at the top of the sport. Notre Dame, the national runner-up the last two seasons, has also worked its way into that group along with Stanford, which has been to five consecutive Final Fours.
Duke (16-0), without a Final Four appearance since 2006, longs to bust into that party. The Blue Devils have reached the Elite Eight of the last three NCAA tournaments, only to suffer losses to Baylor, Connecticut and Stanford in the last three years to fall short of the Final Four.
Tonight, in one of the sports’ toughest venues for an opponent, Duke gets another chance to strike a blow as the Blue Devils meet their first top-five opponent of the season.
After winning by an average of 30.8 points this season, the Blue Devils are girding themselves for a tougher fight.
“We’ve had those lulls where we haven’t played 100 percent for 40 minutes,” Duke junior forward Tricia Liston said. “When you play a top teams you have to play all 40 minutes. It’s not going to be decided in the first 10 minutes, it’s going to be a battle for all 40 minutes.”
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie is drilling that message to her team as it prepares for the season’s biggest game to date. But, at the same time, McCallie doesn’t want her team thinking this game will decide its season.
“I know you guys like to make a big deal out of games,” McCallie said during a news conference following a practice on Friday. “Hopefully we’ll see them again so it’s kind of like a dress rehearsal to learn and grow. That’s the most important thing is learning. We haven’t been learning as much as I would have liked in, say the last four or five games. So that’s an important concept to getting better. That’s all I care about. They are an excellent opponent. That’s all that needs to be said.”
Over the past few years, Connecticut has proven to have a physical and, perhaps, mental edge over Duke.
This will be the fourth meeting between the teams in the last 24 months and the Huskies have easily won the previous three.
On Jan. 31, 2011, Duke was also unbeaten when it headed to play Connecticut at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. The Huskies took a 20-point lead in the game’s first 10 minutes and routed Duke 87-51.
Later that season, Connecticut ended Duke’s NCAA Tournament run with a 75-40 win in the East Regional final at Philadelphia.
Last season, Connecticut came to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 30. Duke was far more competitive, trailing by only eight points at halftime, before the Huskies pulled away to win 61-45.
Liston, averaging 12.4 points per game with a team-best 32 3-pointers, said the Blue Devils are focused on being sharp from beginning to end tonight. She, and her teammates, know nothing less is acceptable.
“Coming out from the beginning and not taking even a minute off,” Liston said. “We have to come out and play smart from the tip. We’ve had two people playing their best or three people playing their best. We need for it to all come together. “