- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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DURHAM, N.C. -- Sometimes life's best rewards come as a result of stepping outside your comfort zone and doing what you and others once thought was impossible.
Emily Waner did that when she left her native state and transferred to Duke after her freshman season at the University of Colorado, sitting out the 2004-05 season and then accepting an unfamiliar role on the basketball court at Cameron Indoor Stadium amidst unfamiliar surroundings off the court more than 1,000 miles from home.
Two years later, Waner's outside shooting is helping the top-ranked Blue Devils step outside their comfort zone on the offensive end and spread defenses to the breaking point. And as Duke prepares for its biggest road test of the season against Tennessee in Knoxville on Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), the reward for both Waner and top-ranked Duke (19-0) looks more and more like it could be the program's elusive first national title.
Four paragraphs might be the maximum any story about Emily can go without mentioning that she is, of course, the older sister of Duke starter Abby Waner. The national player of the year as a senior in high school, Abby stepped in as a freshman last season and played major minutes as the Blue Devils advanced all the way to the national championship game. Avoiding any kind of sophomore slump, she is the team's leading scorer through 18 games this season, averaging 14.3 points per game.
But Emily, now a junior, has always been and remains far more than Abby's big sister.
Coming out of high school, she was Colorado's player of the year as a senior, leading a team that included Abby to a state championship. Recruited by schools across the country, she decided she wanted to remain close to home, narrowing her choices to Colorado and Kansas State.
"I think that ... my main priority was my family and staying close to home," Emily said. "I had a lot of good friends and I was very close to my family, so I wanted to stay there close."
She also wanted to be part of lifting a Colorado program that had routinely lost top local talent (Ann Strother and Liz Sherwood, for example) to the upper echelon of championship contenders. Starting eight games and playing nearly 26 minutes a game as a freshman, she averaged 7.1 points and shot 39.2 percent from behind the arc. But with time to reflect on things once the maelstrom of her initial season faded away, Emily decided the school wasn't a good place for her to be at that point in her life.
The sisters had long since decided they wanted to play together in college, and a scouting report from their mom, who went with Abby on a visit to Durham, helped convince Emily to consider Duke (along with Stanford, Notre Dame and Connecticut). So as Abby began her senior year in high school, Emily blazed the trail to ACC country.
Playing together in college inevitably meant the sisters would be compared to each other, but those outside judgments mattered less to them than the security of sisterhood.
"You have the ups and downs of it, but I think a sister bond is something that is very special," Emily said. "And family is very important to both of us. And we love playing together and being around each other. I think that we offset each other pretty well. We're different in a lot of ways, but we get along; we understand each other really well."
Although Emily's decision was about far more than basketball, the on-court ramifications were dramatic enough. She ultimately ignored the ego any great scorer must have so she could get closer to a goal to which many stars give only lip service. In her case, it really was all about winning a championship.
"What I gave up at Colorado, I gave up playing for 40 minutes and starting for four years," Emily said. "I gave that up because I wanted so badly to win a national championship. And originally my intent in going to Colorado was to build the program in order to compete at that level, and after my first year, I saw that wasn't going to happen. I knew that I needed to be in a place where we would compete, day in and day out, for the national championship."
Duke isn't a program that brings in transfers on a regular basis -- the last ones in the women's program before Emily were Michele VanGorp [!-- CQ --] and Nicole Erickson in 1996 -- but coach Gail Goestenkors had few qualms about bringing in the older Waner.
"I just loved Emily, not just as a player -- obviously her 3-point shooting was something we knew that we needed -- but as a person I knew she'd be a great fit for us," Goestenkors said. "She was willing to transfer from a place where she started as a freshman and had a green light to shoot any time, to come to a program where she knew she was going to come off the bench. But she wanted to win a national championship. And that told me how important it was to win a national championship. She was willing to sacrifice a great deal."
Not that being the new kid on campus for the second year in a row was entirely free of stress for Emily, especially being unable to play basketball that first year while sitting out as per NCAA rules.
"It was difficult, but I was ready for a change, and it was very good for me to go far away," Emily said. "I was actually more homesick at Colorado than I was at Duke, which is surprising because Duke is so far away. But I think that the comfort level here and the people here -- the support staff, the students -- the school provided an environment that I was very comfortable in and I felt like I fit well with. Whereas at Colorado, it just wasn't a good fit, so I was more homesick there."
Last season brought both the arrival of her sister and an opportunity to get back on the court, albeit in a limited role. Emily played in 23 games last season, averaging around nine minutes, including just one minute in the two games at the Final Four in Boston. Combined with the year she sat out, the experience taught her something about the same big picture that initially called her to Durham.
"I feel like this whole experience has given me a better perspective of a team, inside and out," Emily said. "I'd always been a starter, always played, and it gave me insight into what it's like to not play, to be at the end of the bench, to have to have a different role on a team. So I feel like I appreciate the full value of a team from top to bottom now, because of my experience."
The sisters are finally together again on the court this season, as Emily has played the most minutes of any of Duke's reserves. The lessons learned over the last two years have transformed a player who joked that her signature move at the start of high school games was getting the ball and shooting a 3-pointer as quickly as possible.
"It's difficult to come off the bench cold; it's difficult to be a sub," Emily said. "But I think the biggest thing is once you accept that. I've turned my perspective around, and now I look at it as an advantage because I get to watch the game happening, and I get to see what the other team is doing and watch their strengths and weaknesses right there, first hand, before I even get in.
"So I try to go in now and not miss a beat, because I've been paying close attention as to what we're running on offense, what's been working, what's not been working. I try to look at it and find the positives with what I can do with it."
Two inches shorter and less physically imposing than her sister, Emily plays with the flair of someone who spent a lot of time scoring points at one point in her career. Arguably nobody on the team, even starter Lindsey Harding, goes behind her back more often or fires more no-look passes than Emily. And with an extremely quick release, she has little trouble getting off shots from outside and shows little hesitation in doing so.
Like everything else, keeping that scorer's bravado and confidence while adjusting to her reserve role took time.
"When you come off the bench, you don't have the opportunity to make quite as many mistakes as some of the starters do," Goestenkors said. "So that was an adjustment for her as well."
The key moment for Emily might have come in a game earlier this season against Texas. With the Longhorns hanging around early, Emily came on to hit a big 3-pointer and score seven points as the Blue Devils pulled away for a comfortable 80-52 win.
"I had had a really good practice the day before, so I knew I was going to get my shot, my chance to go in and show what I can do, so I was just ready to play," Emily said. "It definitely was a turning point, because it gave the coaches confidence, and that in turn elevated my confidence in myself."
Adding Emily to the mix has given Goestenkors another outside shooter, something most observers pointed to as the most glaring weakness in Duke's lineup this season. With Harding on pace to at least match last season's career-best 23 3-pointers, Emily's contribution -- she has at least one 3-pointer in each of the last 13 games and her 20 3-pointers is second overall on the team behind Abby's 32 treys -- has given the Blue Devils some outside cover.
"I don't think we're a great 3-point shooting team, but I think we're good enough to keep people honest," Goestenkors said. "And fortunately when teams have doubled down on [center Alison Bales], it's opened it up for our perimeter players and we've been able to knock down threes."
Stepping outside the 3-point line has helped transform the Blue Devils from a team of uncertainty following the graduation of Monique Currie, Mistie Williams and Jessica Foley into the No. 1 team in the country. Stepping outside her comfort zone helped Emily, formerly a business major at Colorado but now a premed major after falling in love with medicine at Duke, find something even better.
"It's been a great experience so far, and I've learned so much about myself by taking the risk to come here," Emily said. "Because it was outside my comfort zone coming so far away and doing something completely new, but I feel like it's been everything I wanted it to be so far."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Emily Waner would probably be starting every game if she hadn't transferred. But even coming off the bench at Duke and moving far from home are worth it for the chance to win a national title.