by Mike Potter
CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM Duke begins its quest for post-season glory on Sunday afternoon against an opponent that didn’t have a long way to travel.
Duke has won four straight, rolling to the ACC title after beating archrival UNC in Cameron to sweep that season series. But the Blue Devils will be playing for the first time in 14 days.
“Hampton is the greatest No. 15 seed I have ever seen in my life,” said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, whose team has made the Elite Eight each of the past three seasons. “They are absolutely terrific. This is the best Hampton team I think has ever been there in the history of the program. They’re extremely well-coached, defeating LSU so handily (67-58 on Nov. 16) like they did. … They’re great in transition, and they were completely untested in the MEAC. They’re an ACC(-caliber) team.”
Six said his team might be under-seeded, but that doesn’t matter much.
“I’ve learned a lot about college basketball since (2010) — that was my first year, coming straight from high school,” he said. “I learned that you’ve got to be better prepared. (And) the team that played Duke four years ago started 5-3, 5-3, 5-9, 5-10 and 5-10.”
This season’s Pirates are plenty bigger, with five players listed at 6-2 or taller and four averaging in double figures.
The leaders are 5-11 senior forward Keiara Avant (16.1, 10.2 rebs.) and 5-8 junior guard Nicole Hamilton (12.2, 5.3 assts.)
“Duke is obviously a great team,” Avant said. “We’ve studied them all week long and it will be a pretty good matchup. … (In 2010) it was very loud in here and we weren’t accustomed to such a loud crowd. This time we’re a little more experienced.”
Duke is 19-0 all-time in NCAA first-round games, and is 18-2 in all NCAA Tournament games played in Cameron. The Blue Devils haven’t lost at home to anyone other than Connecticut in over five years.
“We’re excited to be able to be here,” Duke forward Haley Peters said. “I know that for some of us, to be able to go to class still is an important thing and to just be at home is a good feeling. But we’re still focused on improving ourselves and not trying to be too comfortable here.”
The Blue Devils have played their last five games without junior point guard Chelsea Gray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 14. But freshman Alexis Jones slipped into the spot flawlessly, earning MVP honors in the ACC Tournament.
“I don’t think there is ever a good time for it to happen, but when (Gray’s injury) happened was useful for us in terms of rebuilding and coming back for a ‘new season,’” Duke junior guard Tricia Liston said. “I think Lex has done awesome. Coming in as a freshman is always hard and then right away being called on like she was, I think she has stepped up tremendously for us and I’m really proud of her and excited. I like playing with her.”
Blue Devil sophomore center Elizabeth Williams is from nearby Virginia Beach, and with two wins at Cameron would get to play in the regional in Norfolk.
“I guess it’s a little extra motivation knowing a couple of players and (Six),” Williams said. “Coming into this tournament, everybody knows that everyone is good and that you have to prepare the same way for every team.
“You can’t take anyone lightly.”