- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NORFOLK, Va. -- Say what you want about style. The next time a team is described as grinding out a trip up the ladder to cut down nets will be the first.
"We don't want to be pretty," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said after, yes, grinding out a 53-45 win against Nebraska in the regional semifinal Sunday. "We want to advance."
On paper, Tuesday's regional final between No. 1 seed Notre Dame and No. 2 Duke pairs two of the best offenses in the country. Both teams take the court ranked in or near the top 10 nationally in scoring offense (Notre Dame second at 81.5 points per game, Duke 11th at 74.5 points per game) and in field goal offense (Notre Dame fourth at 46 percent, three spots ahead of Duke at 45.4 percent). Then again, Baylor would still be playing if paper carried the day.
While the Fighting Irish have lived up to their numbers and their seed, putting up 90-plus points in two of three NCAA tournament games and most recently routing Kansas by 30 points, Duke failed to reach 70 points in any of its three games, needed a furious second-half comeback at home against Oklahoma State in the second round, and slogged out a win against Nebraska in the Sweet 16 that was rough on the eyes and the rims in the Constant Center.
Duke is no longer a complete team. That isn't to say Alexis Jones isn't a star in the making, Elizabeth Williams isn't as good a post presence as there is in a Griner-less bracket and Tricia Liston isn't an opponent's nightmare on the 3-point line. It's just that Duke simply can't be complete without a player such as Chelsea Gray, who, if healthy, would have been in the discussion alongside Maryland's Alyssa Thomas, Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike, Baylor's Odyssey Sims, Notre Dame's Kayla McBride and a small handful of others as the players likely to define the 2013-14 season and the road to the Final Four in Nashville.
Yet the city the Blue Devils still have their collective eye on is New Orleans, as they sit one win from the Final Four for the fourth consecutive season.
They are still here in Norfolk, and they believe they can still make it to New Orleans, because their defense remains a complete headache for opponents.
"I think one of the big things about our defense is we try to be a multiple-defense team," Blue Devils senior Allison Vernerey said. "So we're trying to go from zone to man and pressing and not pressing, really being alert and changing it up to keep the opponent on their toes."
To be fair, even on defense, the Blue Devils miss Gray. In 10 games without her, the team forced 15.5 turnovers per game, well off the pace set in forcing 22.5 turnovers per game with the point guard. Some of that is direct -- Gray averaged nearly four steals per game all on her own. Some is indirect, the team unable to extend pressure quite as far, or at least for quite the same duration, with less manpower.
But in those same 10 games, six in postseason settings and all but one against teams that were part of the NCAA tournament, Duke limited its opponents to 35.5 percent shooting from the floor. That's almost identical to its field goal defense for the season overall, equal especially given the caliber of opposition down the stretch compared with a soft early schedule.
Strip away the glitz of the high-powered offense with Gray and you find a team that is still the product of its coach's basketball roots. If Jim Boeheim's name is synonymous with zone defense in men's basketball, former Auburn coach Joe Ciampi is similarly linked to the matchup zone in women's basketball. McCallie got her start with Ciampi before taking her first head-coaching position at Maine, then moving on to Michigan State and eventually Duke. From that foundation, she figured out her own style.
"You really don't know what you're doing, so trial and error there," McCallie said of Maine. "[We] had to stick to matchups more so, to beat an Alabama or to beat a Stanford, as we did at Maine, You just couldn't match up man-to-man; you didn't have the personnel to do so. Coming to Michigan State, stayed pretty much with matchups but increased pressing, [using] a lot better athlete to go full court, and you could change up some things."
That defense at Michigan State helped her reach the national championship game in 2005, holding Stanford and Tennessee below their season scoring averages along the way. But Duke offered something more.
"The ultimate has been coming to Duke, where we can do everything," McCallie said. "And we do do everything."
The core remains the matchup zone. Now a Duke assistant coach, Joy Cheek began her playing career with the Blue Devils on teams coached by Gail Goestenkors but finished her time at Duke with McCallie. She learned the matchup on one side of the whistle and now helps teach it on the other side.
"Chaos," Cheek said of the defense's essence. "Limit some penetration -- people do get a few outside shots on us. But that's the best way to put it, is just chaos and confusion because you're kind of everywhere. You're still matched up with somebody; you still have responsibility, like one-on-one defense. Sometimes in the zone, it's not so much one-on-one stops because [a player is] leaving somewhere and someone else can pick up. For us, it's really still big that we have to get one-on-one stops within our defense.
"Just play wide and big and protect the inside."
Unlike a place such as Maine, where top-25 recruits rarely tread and the limitations of McCallie's athletes made the zone a necessity, the talent now available at a place such as Duke makes it a luxury. The Blue Devils have the athletes to play man, but the long arms of 6-foot-3 post players such as Williams and Haley Peters and of big guards such as the 6-foot-1 Liston and Jones make the zone a nightmare to navigate, lanes opening and closing in the blink of an eye.
"We have really long guards, and we're really tall," Jones said. "So sometimes I feel like it's kind of hard to see over us. And when we want to play defense, we really get out there and we get in people's faces and we bug them."
And although McCallie said Monday that, for her defense, losing Gray was equivalent to a football team losing its quarterback, a player such as Williams is as influential on defense as any point guard is on defense. In Cheek's day, coaches used to chide players not to foul because they always had 6-7 Alison Bales behind them to erase mistakes. Williams isn't that, but she had seven blocks against Nebraska and ranks eighth nationally on the season.
"That's not really our focus here with Elizabeth because we don't want to put her in that jeopardy because she's not 6-7, so she's not as big of a target," Cheek said. "But it is a luxury having her down there when you do get beat."
Can Duke beat Notre Dame? It would be the first team without Griner to do so this season, which speaks to a challenge considerably greater than the seedings suggest. And even should the pace slow and the score settle into the 60s, Notre Dame will have arguably the best single defender on the court in Skylar Diggins matched up against a freshman in Jones, who will be on this stage for the first time. The Fighting Irish can play defense, too.
But one of the reasons McCallie came to Duke was to coach a defense that can do everything. It will need to Tuesday night.
A defense that remains a complete headache for opponents might be Duke's key to upsetting Notre Dame. Just don't expect it to be pretty.