Why the Duke women’s basketball team may have ACC’s best backcourt

Duke's Rebecca Greenwell and Lexie Brown react during the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Duke's Rebecca Greenwell and Lexie Brown react during the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas

They form the ACC’s premier backcourt, yet strikingly few basketball followers are familiar with them or their games.

Statistics confirm the fifth-year seniors are the league’s most productive pair of returning guards, female or male, averaging more points and accounting for a larger proportion of their team’s scoring and 3-pointers than any other perimeter pair in 2017. No returning backcourt tandem outdid them in combined accuracy from the foul line, either. So far, Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell have picked up right where they left off last year.

“I love the two of them,” says Nora Lynn Finch, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for women’s basketball. Asked to detail the causes of her admiration, the veteran of 45-plus years as a coach and administrator lauds the Duke duo’s savvy, team orientation, leadership skills and single-mindedness on the court. “They just play the game. They love it.”

The McDonald’s All-Americans are as different as the paths each traveled to land at Duke. Yet to hear those around the program tell it, Brown and Greenwell go together as well as … coach Joanne P. McCallie goes with peanut butter and jelly. “They’re complements to each other,” she explains. Greenwood accepts the PB and J comparison; Brown prefers “fire and ice,” unaware the nickname was affixed more than a quarter-century ago to N.C. State’s Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe.

Greenwell and Brown merged so well in 2017, their first season together, they both made first team All-ACC and the Blue Devils (28-6) far exceeded the offensive effectiveness of most McCallie squads. The team finished second in the ACC in scoring margin, field goal and 3-point accuracy and retained a focus on tough defense, leading the conference in suppressing opponents’ field goals and 3-pointers and in blocking shots. Duke (5-1) is a top-20 unit again this season, a level it maintained uninterrupted from 1998 through 2015.

“I was a little worried how we were going to mesh and everything,” Greenwell admits of Brown’s arrival after transferring from Maryland. “She really has made me better, everyone better. She’s the first true point guard since I’ve been here, and the best point guard since I’ve been here.”

Greenwell, a shooter with a quick release, thrives offensively coming off screens. Brown describes her as a “silent assassin” – in constant motion without the ball, proficient handling it. “Becca” Greenwell perfected her game in the family driveway in Owensboro, Ky., (population 59,000 and change) competing with her older sister, Rachel, who played at Division II Bellarmine University in nearby Louisville.

Duke's Lexie Brown drives past Pitt's Alayna Gribble during a game on Feb. 12, 2017 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Herald-Sun | Kaitlin McKeown The Herald-Sun | Kaitlin McKeown

Brown, a big-city product, grew up playing against boys as well as girls. Her basketball guide remains her father, DeCovan “Dee” Brown, a 12-year NBA veteran best known for winning the league’s 1991 Slam Dunk contest despite standing 6-1, if that. “I hang on his every word,” says the 2018 ACC preseason player of the year, her words music to a father’s ears. “He has so much knowledge to give.”

The 5-9 guard got to the Final Four both seasons at Maryland. She started as a freshman on a veteran squad and became more of a leader her sophomore year, when the Terrapins quit the ACC and joined the cold, unfamiliar haunts of the Big 10. “That was horrible,” Brown says of being so far from her Atlanta support system.

So she transferred, choosing Duke at her mother’s urging, only to sit out a year under NCAA rules because she switched schools. Brown followed through on her choice despite static about McCallie’s treatment of players and staff, allegations that led the school to conduct an internal investigation that absolved her of misconduct. “A lot of people don’t understand her,” Brown says of the 10th-year Duke coach. “I think me and her are very alike. We’re very in sync.”

Meanwhile, the 6-1 Greenwell signed with Duke and was immediately derailed, a knee injured in high school causing her to be red-shirted for the 2014 season. In Greenwell’s first two healthy years, the Blue Devils were ACC also-rans, missing the NCAA tournament entirely in 2016.

Greenwell’s freshman year Duke advanced to the Sweet 16, where it was eliminated by Brown and Maryland. Her debut season didn’t start so well, either. Playing at home against top-ranked South Carolina on Dec. 7, 2014, No. 2 Duke held a one-point lead in the final seconds when the freshman took a pass and, trapped by the defense, picked up her dribble in a corner near her own basket. Failing to call timeout, she had the ball stripped. The Gamecocks scored and the Devils were sunk, 51-50.

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Duke's Rebecca Greenwell goes after a loose ball against Hampton's Georgianna Gilbeaux, during the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas

“Those things happen,” the purposely poker-faced perimeter player says, the sting of being the goat faded with time. “You just have to let them go.” Last year, when USC, the eventual NCAA champion, returned to Cameron Indoor Stadium, an inspired Greenwell led all scorers with 29 points in a Duke victory. Now she stands ready to counsel any freshman who endures a competitive catastrophe similar to hers. “I’ll be the first to tell them, ‘That’s OK, I’ve done worse.’ 

This year, Greenwell (16.6 ppg this season) is likely to cap her career by setting Duke women’s marks in threes made and attempted, and she will soon be among the school’s top 10 in points. She started the season fourth in career free throw accuracy (.820 through Nov. 24).

Good as Greenwell is from the line, Brown (19.7 ppg this season) is better. She paced the conference in free throw percentage (.928) in 2017, and in two ACC seasons compiled .881 career accuracy, best in league women’s history. Last year Brown set an ACC women’s mark by making 56 consecutive foul shots. (The men’s record is 66 by N.C. State’s Scott Wood in 2012.)

“They’re both beautiful shooters, technique-wise,” McCallie says of her guards, grad students in Duke’s business school.

Brown, a flashy, evolving playmaker, ranked 10th among last season’s ACC assist leaders (3.85 per game, best at Duke). She describes herself as “energetic and passionate” on the court; sometimes that means she’s too aggressive, over-penetrating or rushing beyond control. Defensively, Greenwell and Brown also tend toward over-enthusiasm, according to McCallie. “It’s really fun to coach them on defense because you almost have to turn them down,” she says. “They jump all over the place.”

What heights the pair do reach – in a measured manner, of course – likely will determine Duke’s fate in 2018.