Duke subs know role -- and excel in it
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- They are faceless for now, settling for 15 minutes of playing time instead of 15 minutes of fame. But that might change in the days ahead.
Joy Cheek, Emily Waner, Brittany Mitch, Bridgette Mitchell and Keturah Jackson have combined to play 2,060 minutes for Duke this season, but have never been on the court to start a game. They are the full-time understudies for the five stars who have put on quite a show in leading the Blue Devils to a 32-1 record and a spot in the Sweet 16 as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Put the quintet on a roster in a mid-major conference and it might have earned its own berth in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the reserves bide their time in the limelight's shadows, free to snack on pizza and ignore the cameras and tape recorders that descend on their teammates in the postseason locker room.
Composed of four freshmen (Mitch is a redshirt freshman after sitting out last season with a hip injury) and a junior (Waner is in just her second year with the program after transferring from Colorado), it's a group of players who are reserves more by dint of timing than deficiencies. They could start elsewhere right now, they will almost all start here eventually, but they're ready when needed as Duke chases a championship.
"All of our players, and our bench in particular, they've accepted their roles," coach Gail Goestenkors said during the ACC tournament. "Sometimes when it gets late in the season some of your bench players get frustrated because they're not seeing more minutes, but our players know exactly what their roles are and they embrace them."
No reserve might have more to say about capturing the program's first national championship as Cheek. The former McDonald's All-American opened her college career with a double-double against Northeastern, but she truly arrived with eight points and 14 rebounds in the regular-season finale against North Carolina. Already averaging a team-high 15.9 minutes off the bench this season, she has bumped that mark to nearly 20 minutes in the final third of the season, a stretch that included two games against North Carolina and a game against Maryland.
"Joy, definitely, has been the one to improve the most," said starting 2 guard Abby Waner, Emily's younger sister. "She's quiet in what she does; she had 14 boards against Carolina, she had 10 points [against Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals]. She's quiet and steady, but that's exactly what we need out of her."
Ostensibly the only true wide-body other than Alison Bales on the roster, Cheek allows Goestenkors to utilize a big lineup with Bales at center and Cheek at power forward or spell the senior center for a few minutes.
"I feel like I learn things every game," Cheek said. "I knew I wasn't going to get a double-double every game, because the competition gets better. And as the competition got better, I had to play better and rise to the challenge."
Cheek will be an important factor as the Blue Devils match up against increasingly physical teams as the NCAA Tournament progresses, but a condensed postseason rotation also includes regular minutes for Emily Waner and Mitch.
At 6-foot-2, Mitch brings a blend of size and skills to a perimeter group that is heavy on talent but light on bulk. Described by Abby Waner as "one of the best passers I've ever played with," Mitch is also another long-distance option for a team that needs one.
Singled out by the coaching staff earlier in the season for playing too cautiously, she averaged just over eight minutes a game -- a little over half of her season average -- in four games against North Carolina, Maryland and Tennessee. But as the Blue Devils came down the stretch, Mitch emerged as a defensive stopper. Along with Mitchell, she gives the Blue Devils options on the wing if Wanisha Smith and Abby Waner need a break.
The bench's veteran, with all of one year of experience as a reserve marksman and point guard in Goestenkors' system (she was a part-time starter at Colorado as a freshman), Emily Waner talked earlier in the season about her own initial trepidation in adjusting to a reserve role after a lifetime of starting. With that in mind, she's impressed by what the first-year players have done so far with their new assignments.
"I think that they've done a great job," the elder Waner said. "I think that everybody brings a certain spark, and the freshmen have tons of energy. And they've come in and done a great job."
Even so, acclimating to a limited role is a challenge approached differently by different people. Mitch plays with a subtle smoothness that allows her to blend in seamlessly when she's on, but there have been occasions when her initial minutes have resembled an economy car coming off the side of the road and trying to blend in with Autobahn traffic.
"It's kind of hard to get in the flow, because everyone else is in the flow, they're going," Mitch admitted. "But it's just something you have to do, you have to come in with high energy. Do the small things first, don't come in trying to make an impact. Do the small things and then you'll get into it."
For Cheek, someone with aggressive style of play and confidence to match, the delayed energy is released more like a bull coming out of the chute at a rodeo.
"People always talk about being a freshman, you come from your high school team and you start every game, but it's really not that bad," Cheek said. "You just have to be ready and have that energy coming off the bench, because you're the spark we need."
The Blue Devils are a team driven by their starting five, but the lift provided by an inexperienced group of reserves has played a part in the team's success. As unsure as people might have been about Lindsey Harding and Alison Bales taking control of the team at the start of the season, the bench might have been the biggest unknown.
"I did not know going into the season what to expect from the freshmen, because you never know how they're going to play in big-game situations," Goestenkors said. "But with every game that we played, I just gained more and more confidence in them."
And about that notion that the five reserves could make a pretty competitive team of their own? In some ways, they already have.
"We're a tight little support system on the bench, the five of us," Mitch said. "We practice together, so we have our bond. We support each other when we're in there and give each other encouragement."
That's encouraging for the Blue Devils as they march on toward Cleveland.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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