Duke spotlight a little dimmer in Bridgeport
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- The Duke Blue Devils couldn't play the role of Cinderella if you spotted them the pumpkin, mice and fairy godmother.
But as coach Gail Goestenkors and the top-seeded Blue Devils prepare to battle Michigan State in the Bridgeport Regional's Sweet 16 on Sunday evening (ESPN2, 7 ET), they appear equally far removed from the role of all-powerful, bullying NCAA Tournament step-sister that some associate with both of the school's basketball programs.
Duke is a No. 1 seed, but the Blue Devils aren't the consensus pick to win it all; that tag goes to rival North Carolina, thanks in no small measure to five straight wins over Duke in the last two seasons. Even fellow ACC power Maryland, the lowest seed remaining in the Albuquerque Regional, seems to have at least as much postseason buzz as Duke, thanks to the second-seeded Terrapins' chic status as a program on the rise. And while the seeding confirms that the Blue Devils are the statistical favorite amongst the four teams gathered in Bridgeport, they won't be the main attraction as long as the Connecticut Huskies are around.
So in an age where teams at every level love to play the "disrespect" card, whether it's real or imagined, are the Blue Devils bothered by their new status on the fringes of the championship radar?
Quite the opposite. In fact, you get the feeling that the comfort of playing the role of hunter is just one of several new perspectives that could help the program capture its first national title.
Start at the top with a more relaxed Goestenkors, who seems completely at peace with her team's road to Boston.
"[Not being the team in the spotlight in Bridgeport] is really good," the coach told the media on Saturday. "I think our regional is not even in the spotlight. Everybody's been talking about the Cleveland Regional. Which for me, go for it; continue to talk about other regionals. We'll just go about our business."
Where once Goestenkors crouched on the sideline during games, as if constantly coiled and ready to strike, she now spends most of the game sitting squarely on the bench. And while Saturday's public practice was as much cardio workout as strategy session, Goestenkors' demeanor and decibel level still stood in stark contrast to many of her boisterous peers. Her instructions, criticisms and announcements were made in the same even-keeled tone, with players often having to turn their heads and focus on her mouth to get the message. Even when the coach jumped in as a passer on a drill for post players, she could have almost passed for the manager next to her on the court, snapping of entry passes as a near-silent observer.
There were surely more than a few practices in Durham where that calm demeanor faded beneath the flushed face of frustration and annoyance, but senior post Mistie Williams summed up her coach's new outlook best.
"This year, [coach is] really trying to involve everybody and get everybody's input," Williams said. "I think it kind of calms the team and lets us know she's doing whatever she can to make us win and help us out. She is very laid back now, which is good, but at the same time, we know she's driven and she's got fire behind her."
It's a sense of calm that Goestenkors herself attributes, at least in part, to the encouragement she received from peers during her stint as an assistant on the U.S. national team. Of fellow coaches Van Chancellor, Anne Donovan and C. Vivian Stringer, Goestenkors says, "They all helped me with my confidence, because after you're expected to win it all, and you don't even get to the Final Four [with Alana Beard in 2004], it was really tough for me. I felt responsible for not getting my team to the Final Four.
"They were good for me, because they helped me feel I was a great coach, and we would get to the Final Four, and we would win a national championship."
And perhaps in gazing at that bigger picture for herself and her program, Goestenkors has freed her current players, specifically seniors Williams and Monique Currie, to give their full attention to the here and now, instead of splitting time between the task at hand and their coach's angst.
Williams offered a perspective on the team's state of mind in talking about how the team responded after losing to Maryland in the ACC tournament.
"I think it gave us even more motivation to come out here and be successful, because we didn't win our conference," she said. "We didn't get anything."
As powerful as words on paper or a computer screen can be, there are times when visuals offer much more. Seeing Williams, standing off to one side in the dark hall outside Duke's locker room, begin to stoically answer a question she had probably heard dozens of times, only to slowly shift to amazement and determination as she punctuated "anything" with an audible exclamation point, suggested a great deal about the senior's focus.
"We don't want last year to be the same as this year," she continued, "where we didn't have anything to show for it. So if anything, the Maryland loss was more motivating and helped us get on track."
Last year, of course, ended with a 59-49 loss to LSU in the regional finals, marking the second year in a row Duke's season ended one game short of the Final Four.
But after beating overmatched squads from Southern and USC in the first two rounds, the only hurdle on the minds of the Blue Devils is No. 4 seed Michigan State. Instead of worrying about long-awaited championships or even a showdown with Geno Auriemma, the Blue Devils themselves are looking for ways to get open looks against Michigan State's dangerous zone and avoid running into trouble against the Spartans' presses and traps.
Says Williams, "If you get too far ahead of yourself, you realize you didn't take care of things you needed to take care of, and all of sudden you end up with a loss. So we're just really focused on what we need to do right now; Michigan State's strengths and weaknesses, and capitalizing on that."
That the team's focus is right where it should be in Bridgeport is just one more reason for outside observers to focus on a potential redemption game against North Carolina in Boston. After all, the present is a pretty good place to be when it includes seniors such as Currie, Williams and reserve shooter Jessica Foley, as well as point guard Lindsey Harding and 6-foot-7 center Alison Bales, who picked the second round of the NCAA Tournament to establish a career high with 22 points.
It used to be that everyone kept asking when Goestenkors and Duke would finally win a national championship. And at times, it seemed like all the questions had Goestenkors herself wondering if her program was doomed to run into a Jackie Stiles or Lindsay Whalen every March.
But a funny thing seems to have happened after the tournament selection committee stuck Duke in a backwater bracket on another team's home turf.
Everyone stopped asking questions about the Blue Devils and moved on to hotter topics.
It's too bad, because the Blue Devils finally appear to have the right answers.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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