- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DURHAM, N.C. -- It wasn't that Chelsea Gray didn't look around at schools closer to home in California. She did. But when she traveled across the country to visit Duke, everything just felt right. She walked around the campus and thought, "This is the place. I fit here."
Still, the Blue Devils freshman knew it was a huge step to take.
"It's been a big transition, just moving away from my family. I'd been in California all my life," said Gray, a 5-foot-11 guard from Stockton, Calif. "At some points, it's been difficult. But with my team always around me, all the love I feel from them, I knew it would do nothing but get better."
Gray is one of five Blue Devils freshmen who responded rather fiercely on Wednesday to their escape from NC State on Sunday. Clemson bore the brunt of a refocused Duke team at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The final: 92-37.
Duke, down by as many as 20 points Sunday in Raleigh, N.C., rallied to win 65-64 and remain unbeaten. The Blue Devils (20-0) couldn't have looked more different in Wednesday's first half than they did at NC State in the opening 20 minutes. Against the Tigers, they pounced early, taking a 59-12 lead at halftime.
Senior guard Jasmine Thomas believes, though, that Wednesday's victory still wasn't close to Duke being at its best.
"We played a good 20 minutes; our first half was great," Thomas said. "But our second half shows where we're still trying to mature and grow, not playing to the scoreboard. Once we play a full 40 minutes, that will be Duke at its best."
You can be sure Gray, who was in the postgame news conference with Thomas, heard every word. Gray is handling a lot of the point guard duties, in part because coach Joanne P. McCallie likes the versatility that allows Thomas offensively. But Thomas, of course, has spent a lot of time at the point in her Duke career, so Gray pays particularly close attention to what the senior says and does.
"Jasmine Thomas is the leader, and she's someone I looked up to coming in here," Gray said. "Throughout the game, I'll look at her, and she'll give me a look like, 'That was right' or 'That was wrong.' We have good communication on and off the court."
Gray has some time to transition into a true leadership role because Thomas and fellow seniors Krystal Thomas and Karima Christmas are currently carrying that load. There are also two juniors, Shay Selby and Kathleen Scheer, and one sophomore, Allison Vernerey, on this Duke team.
But next season, these current Duke freshmen will almost need to think of themselves as upperclassmen. In fact, there are some days now when McCallie already thinks they're getting close to that. Other days not as much. But isn't it always that way with freshmen?
"There are so many new experiences," McCallie said. "And there has been some inconsistency. But I think they're doing pretty well with it. Sometimes, we feel like we don't have any freshmen. There are those games. And then there are other games where you say, 'Well, there might be a few out there.'
"It just depends. I love poise on a team: being able to handle that anytime, anyplace, anywhere thing."
So that's what the freshmen are striving for. Gray has played the most minutes among the rookies and is averaging 8.4 points after scoring 10 in a very balanced attack Wednesday. She also had five assists and four steals.
Haley Peters, a 6-3 guard/forward from Red Bank, N.J., and Chloe Wells, a 5-7 guard from Colton, Calif., have also played in all 20 games this season for the Blue Devils. Peters is averaging 6.0 points, Wells 3.9.
Tricia Liston, a 6-1 guard from River Forest, Ill., and Richa Jackson, a 6-0 forward from Midwest City, Okla., round out the Blue Devils' freshman five. They are averaging 6.3 and 2.3 points, respectively.
"We have to go through everything together, and I feel like we've adjusted pretty well to that with the senior leadership we have," Gray said.
She also got some idea of what college ball would be like in conversations with her cousin, former Cal player Alexis Gray-Lawson.
"She would say, 'It's a different level, you've got to kick it up a notch,'" Gray said.
Thus far, Gray has shown the capacity to do that. But next up will be the biggest challenge thus far for Gray and the other Duke freshmen: The No. 3 Blue Devils will play at No. 2 UConn on Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
UConn has a 5-3 lead in the series; last season's matchup in Durham was a Huskies' runaway win, 81-48. UConn recently lost one of its standout freshmen, Samarie Walker, who transferred to Kentucky. But two other freshmen, guard Bria Hartley and post player Stefanie Dolson, are starters who log a lot of minutes for UConn.
So among other things, Monday's game will showcase both programs' young talent. Just as UConn senior star Maya Moore has talked about the importance of her team's rookies stepping forward, Duke's seniors know the impact their freshmen must continue to have.
"It started off the court," Krystal Thomas said of helping the freshmen. "Making sure the little things were taken care of off the court, because those relay on the court."
And Jasmine Thomas added, "It's important for us as seniors, who are trying to accomplish things in our last chance, to make sure that they are picking up things quickly. That if they don't understand, they can come to us. Just being there whenever they need someone for advice or encouragement."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Duke is off to a 20-0 start. But for continued success, the Blue Devils' seniors know their freshmen teammates must continue to make an impact.