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Tuesday, April 1
Updated: April 2, 5:11 PM ET
Devils going down to Georgia as underdogs

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

STANFORD, Calif. -- Funny how it keeps working out this way: Every time Tennessee plays Duke, the Blue Devils are the underdogs.

Alana Beard
Alana Beard and Duke, a three-time Final Four participant, lost to OU in the '02 national semis.
Now, you might say that it's that way with almost everybody Tennessee goes against. And, sure, that's true. But before this season began, the odds might have been that this was the year that Duke became a "favorite'' in this matchup.

It hasn't happened, though, in part because of the loss of Monique Currie seconds into Duke's first exhibition game. When these teams, both No. 1 seeds, meet in the Final Four semifinals on Sunday, most people are going to give the edge to Tennessee.

Not that it matters, really. Duke has been down this path before. For obvious reasons, when Duke played Tennessee in the 1999 Elite Eight, the Blue Devils were enormous underdogs. Tennessee was coming off three consecutive NCAA titles and had superstar Chamique Holdsclaw.

But Duke won that game -- a watershed moment for the program -- and made its first Final Four.

This this past November, when the teams met at the Jimmy V Classic in Raleigh, N.C., the pre-game buzz, frankly, was that Duke would get dumped out of the No. 1 ranking.

Instead the Blue Devils put on a defensive clinic and won by 21 points. Tennessee, being Tennessee, seemed more irritated than shaken by this. Tennessee made enough offensive changes this season and that loss came so early that it all could be somewhat shrugged off.

Now, four months later, a lot of the same things will be said before this game. Tennessee has steamrolled its way through the tournament. Duke, which ended up losing the No. 1 ranking to UConn in February, has walked a tight wire in the Midwest Regional semifinals and final in Albuquerque.

Tennessee has seemed extremely confident. Duke, at times, has looked like it's waiting to exhale. Yet ... they're both in the Final Four.

Does it really matter how you get there, so long as you're there?

Although Duke had a quick trip for its first- and second-round games in Raleigh, it didn't play on its home court the way Tennessee did. And, of course, while Tennessee was at home STILL for the regional, Duke was three-fourths of the way across the country.

Then add in the typical Tennessee elevation of play in March, which we've been seeing for a couple of decades now. All things considered, it pretty much makes sense that Tennessee has looked more dominant in the NCAA Tournament thus far, doesn't it?

That said, maybe the biggest question is this: Can Duke find a higher gear on offense while maintaining what has been a good defensive effort in the tournament?

Admittedly, the Blue Devils' interior defense in the second half of the semifinal against Georgia was pretty much awful. But overall, defense has carried Duke this far. The 12 blocked shots against Texas Tech were huge, helping off-set the fact that Duke was outrebounded 38-27.

The thing that Tech was most concerned with, perimeter shooting, did end up being crucial. This isn't the first time the bottom has fallen out in that regard for Tech; it has happened against other teams. But Duke does get credit for it, too, and that's something Tennessee will be wary about.

At this point, neither coach Gail Goestenkors nor anyone else for Duke would say the Blue Devils are really playing the way they want to be. But they're headed to Atlanta just the same.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.



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