Duke's unofficial foe on the road to a title? Doubt
Duke can win the NCAA title if: doubt doesn't enter the Blue Devils' minds
History blurs the distinction between vulnerability and imperfection for Gail Goestenkors' top-seeded Blue Devils, leaving a team that seemed impervious on the court at times this season ripe for psychoanalysis in the postseason.
Perhaps the most successful program, certainly in recent years, never to have won a national championship, Duke sailed through the regular season with 29 consecutive wins. A win against Virginia in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament made it 30 in a row, but the countdown to perfection ended in a 70-65 semifinal loss against NC State in which the Blue Devils completely failed to match the underdog's intensity.
With the defeat, a season's worth of pent-up questions, muted for months by the winning streak, were released. Instead of talking about the Blue Devils' making history, people are raising questions about their potentially repeating history with another disappointing postseason run.
Did they peak too soon? Is Lindsey Harding really better equipped to lead a title drive than Alana Beard or Monique Currie was? Can Alison Bales be counted on for points down the stretch? Is Abby Waner too streaky to provide consistent long-range support?
Consider doubt Duke's unofficial seventh opponent on the road to a championship.
The trick will be ensuring that the question marks remain in print and in the stands, and not in the heads of a group of players (and their coach) who endured such crushing disappointment against Maryland in the title game last April.
Simply put, the Blue Devils are good enough to win the national championship if they play their game.
The loss to NC State demonstrated there is nothing inevitable about their aspirations, but it didn't expose any inherent strategic weaknesses that North Carolina (twice), Maryland (twice) and Tennessee had simply failed to pick up on in their scouting reports.
NC State had success penetrating off the dribble and shortening the half-court sets to produce open midrange jumpers for Ashley Key and Shayla Fields, but few backcourts are as tough to score against as Duke's trio of Harding, Waner and Wanisha Smith.
In five games against the Tar Heels, Terrapins and Lady Vols, the Blue Devils allowed Ivory Latta, Kristi Toliver, Shay Doron and Alexis Hornbuckle to shoot just 33.7 percent. Only Hornbuckle (8 of 15) and Doron (2 of 4) hit as many as half their shots in a game.
Bales is the linchpin of that defense, closing off the lane and allowing the perimeter players to play more aggressively, but the Wolfpack used giant Gillian Goring and active Khadijah Whittington to harass Bales into a 4-for-13 shooting night.
Still, Bales shot 48.9 percent in the team's five biggest showdowns, better than her overall mark of 46 percent despite facing stars such as Erlana Larkins, Crystal Langhorne and Candace Parker, and supporting posts like LaToya Pringle, Laura Harper and Nicky Anosike.
But despite all of that, people will look at the one loss next to 30 wins, view Duke's history in the NCAA Tournament and continue finishing their sentences with question marks.
Duke has proven it can beat all comers this season, but to capture that elusive national championship the Blue Devils have to prove they aren't going to beat themselves.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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