With Taurasi-like swagger, Waner is one to watch
BOSTON -- Time may wait for no man, but Abby Waner is out to prove that the feeling is mutual.
The Final Four is a time for seniors and proven superstars to take center stage, often enduring, as much as conquering, the harsh glare of the sport's brightest spotlight. At the very least, success for freshmen surely requires the kind of seasoning, on and off the court, reserved for cornerstone players like Candace Parker and Courtney Paris.
Unless you're talking about Waner, who might leave Boston with far more than lobster flip-flops and a David Ortiz t-shirt. A freshman reserve when she arrived in town, she has the potential to leave as one of the game's young superstars.
What would it have been like to wander into a club in 1955, lured by the chance to see Miles Davis fronting his band, only to be struck by the untapped brilliance of an unknown named John Coltrane cutting loose on the sax behind Davis? How would it feel to hear the notes cascading over you, and look around, wondering if everyone else recognized the priceless quality of that moment of discovery?
Watching Waner drop clutch jumper after clutch jumper in the regionals in Bridgeport, whether standing several feet behind the 3-point line or fading for a baseline deuce, was watching the birth of something special. Against Michigan State in the Sweet 16, when Waner scored 14 points in 21 minutes, it was more of an afterthought, a performance that came mostly after the Spartans had already been demoralized. But against Connecticut in the regional final, with Duke's offense sputtering on all cylinders, it was Waner's precocious shooting that quelled a Connecticut run and opened the door for the Blue Devils to eventually pull out an overtime win.
"I don't know if I really felt nerves," Waner said of her initial foray into the NCAA Tournament. "Against Connecticut, they are a great, great team, and you'd think I would have been a little nervous going into overtime. I know if I was watching the game and not playing, I probably would have been an absolute mess. But it's different when you're on the court. And I felt calm the whole time, because I knew this team was going to pull it out."
Indeed, in a place all too familiar with that particular blend of joyful enthusiasm mixed with an assassin's confidence, Waner's performance against the Huskies was downright Taurasi-like.
Which is all the more remarkable considering the freshman was mired in a shooting slump just weeks before the postseason.
"I had kind of an up and down season, but it never mattered too much, because our team always seemed to stay consistent and play pretty well," Waner said Saturday while relaxing in front of her locker as large circles of reporters surrounded teammates Monique Currie, Mistie Williams and Alison Bales.
"But I know I was struggling. A couple of games ago, Coach G [Duke coach Gail Goestenkors] pulled me aside and she said she talked to somebody and they compared me to her, just saying that I was way too hard on myself, kind of like Coach G is. Not that it's a bad thing, but that it can take you down and it can become a toll on you. And I felt like I was carrying something extra, just because I was always so hard on myself. If I missed a shot, I'd be like 'Gosh, why didn't I hit that?' and then I'd keep remembering the miss."
The Gatorade and McDonald's national player of the year coming out of high school in Colorado, Waner reached double figures in six of her first 11 college games, including a season-high 23 points against Colorado State on Dec. 22. But she began to falter during the grind of the ACC regular season, reaching double figures just four times in a 20-game span while watching her minutes dwindle and her starting assignments go to Wanisha Smith.
"[Waner] lost her a confidence a little, which happens with freshmen quite often," Goestenkors said Saturday. "But she always remained positive and she fought through. She never lost faith in herself, and I think her teammates really helped her through, as well.
"Every time she shoots, as a coach, and I think her teammates, believe it's going in, sometimes to the point where we believe more than she did. But I think they helped her, and we all tried to help her understand that, for one, she can't be so hard on herself, which she is. And two, that she needs to shoot for us to be successful."
Underscoring Goestenkors' second point, Waner shot just 5-for-17 in Duke's two losses to North Carolina this season, including 1-for-8 from behind the arc. Just as Currie might be Duke's best option to break down the Tar Heels' defense on drives to the basket, should the teams meet in Tuesday's title game, Waner represents the team's best hope for stretching North Carolina's athletic defense beyond even its breaking point.
But what separates Waner from being simply another accurate sharpshooter is a somewhat unique mix of the joyful nature she brings to the court and her self-imposed perfectionism. They're the same traits that Diana Taurasi displayed in winning three national championships with Connecticut, smiling and enjoying the hell out of being on the court, even as she pulled up from a ridiculous distance to rip out the other team's heart with a 3-pointer.
"I felt like a weight was lifted, and just to remember to have fun," Waner said of getting through the midseason funk. "One of my friends told me I just needed to keep thinking about the next play. And that's really helped me as well, because you can't keep remembering the last play. All you can do is hope to make the next play. And that helped a lot." It's a lesson her teammates impressed upon her, as well.
"I told her, 'You're one of the best shooters that we have on our team," said Lindsey Harding. "And I'm the point guard; I wouldn't pass it to you if I didn't think you could shoot.' "
Slump solved, Waner is now just enjoying the ride without losing sight of the team's ultimate goal.
"It's been really cool," she said with a broad smile of her initial Final Four impressions. "Starting from when we got off the plane, and they stopped all traffic so we could get to our hotel. It's not like we had a time limit; we just had to get to the hotel. You're here and you walk into this huge banquet, and they're making such a big deal about you being in the Final Four. Not taking anything away from the banquet, but you also have to realize that the Final Four isn't enough for us.
"It's very easy to be distracted and be like, 'Great, we're a Final Four team. This is what we came for.' But this team, I feel like, knows that we aren't done yet. So we can't get distracted with, or be complacent with, the fact that yes, we made it to a Final Four. We're not settling for that."
And staring at the prospect of three more years with Waner, who averaged 6.9 assists and 5.7 steals per game as a senior in high school and is only scratching the surface of her ability as a combo guard, the Blue Devils won't have to settle for moral victories anytime soon.
Just as Taurasi won her first title as a complement to a star-studded senior class that included Sue Bird and Swin Cash, Waner won't be the focus of attention this weekend for a Duke team with plenty of veteran leadership.
But in a few years, if we're sitting around at the 2009 Final Four in St. Louis trying to pinpoint when Waner arrived, these next few days in Boston may figure prominently.
One if by land, two if by sea and three if by Waner?
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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