Dream season ends in heartbreak

By Ben Cohen The Chronicle

March 27, 2007

Durham, NC (CSTV U-WIRE) -- After missing the two biggest free throws of her career, Lindsey Harding collapsed to the floor.

She was disappointed that her shots rimmed out, depressed that her career was suddenly over and shocked that she failed in the clutch. It was a sucker punch of emotion that no one saw coming.

Head coach Gail Goestenkors maintained that two free throws should not-and will not-define Harding and fellow senior Alison Bales' career.

It may not reflect the impact the veteran duo had on the program, but Harding's crumpling to the floor and Duke's subsequent huddle around its fallen leader will be the lasting image of this season-the one that got away. Again.

For as much as last year's 78-75 overtime loss to Maryland in the National Championship pained and haunted the Blue Devils, their 53-52 loss to Rutgers in the Sweet 16 may hurt even more.

"It's going to be difficult," Goestenkors said after the game. "This is going to be a game they'll remember-especially the seniors, this is going to be a game they will remember for the rest of their lives. I will do my very best to help them understand what a tremendous year this was."

Through the regular season, Duke (32-2) looked invincible-unstoppable, even. Behind Harding's 28 points and Bales' 18 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks, the Blue Devils beat the Terrapins in a rematch of last year's title game Jan. 13. They perched atop of the national rankings for the rest of the year, solidifying their status with an away victory at Tennessee, another win against Maryland, and two triumphs over North Carolina.

The Blue Devils did not simply beat their opponents. They routed the competition, winning by an average margin of 24.1 points.

Duke's balance was its strength all year. If Harding could not penetrate, sophomore sharpshooter Abby Waner buried a three-pointer. If Waner had an off night, junior Wanisha Smith stepped up. If Bales was double-teamed, sophomore forward Carrem Gay compensated for her frontcourt mate.
 

 

Duke completed the first perfect regular season in school and ACC history, completing the feat and sparking a bonfire with its Feb. 25 win over the Tar Heels. The irony of Duke's unprecedented success was its unexpectedness. After losing Monique Currie, Mistie Williams and Jessica Foley to graduation, Goestenkors' squad was tabbed third in the preseason ACC poll. The Blue Devils did not garner even one first-place vote. As the season progressed, though, their confidence grew exponentially, eventually reaching the point that the team's motto-"what is delayed is not denied"-looked prophetic.

In the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, however, the Blue Devils never found their rhythm, despite the fact that Waner was 11-for-18 from behind the arc. They lost to upstart N.C. State 70-65 in the semifinals, after missing one shot to give them the lead and one shot to tie the ballgame in the last 10 seconds.

Still, Duke was awarded the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, a decision that was approved by any relevant basketball analyst. At the very least, the Blue Devils were expected to waltz to the Final Four.

But then Harding, Duke's national player of the year candidate, missed those two shots. The dream ended not with the bang of fireworks in Cleveland, but with the thud of her falling to the hardwood in Greensboro.

"We've had a tremendous season and I told the team afterwards that one game does not define a season or the type of season that they have had," Goestenkors said. "I don't think anybody in the country anticipated that we would have such a remarkable year. I am very proud of each and every one of them."

In the aftershock of both defeats, Duke struggled with the obvious question. What went wrong?

The Blue Devils led by double digits in their two losses but surrendered the advantage in both. In the last minute of their losses, the Blue Devils played from behind and simply could not sink the decisive shot. The losses, though, were triggered by lapses during the entire second half, rather than solely in the last minute. In both games, Duke's sterling defense-its trademark all season long-showed stretches of vulnerability. Its rebounding-which Goestenkors worried about all season long-was suspect.

In the end, the Blue Devils could not overcome their biggest shortcomings. In the last minute of the Rutgers loss, the Scarlet Knights grabbed an offensive rebound that led to a three-pointer that cut Duke's lead to one. After securing a defensive rebound, Rutgers freshman Epiphanny Price went coast-to-coast for a short jumper that gave the Scarlet Knights their first lead of the second half with less than 10 seconds remaining. The Blue Devils never regained the lead.

At the post-game press conference, Waner sobbed, Bales wept and Goestenkors showed signs of previous tears-another season ending with sorrow.

Next year, Harding and Bales-who each won more than 120 games in their four years-will be conspicuously absent from Cameron Indoor Stadium. Goestenkors, confirmed to be the target of Texas' coaching search, might be gone, as well.

Although the face of the team will be drastically different, Duke will survive. The Blue Devils have more than enough talent to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament every year, no matter who their point guard or coach is.

And even though Saturday's loss is still fresh in its memory, Duke will undoubtedly look forward to the hopeful prospects of "next year"-the one when it might finally capture that elusive National Championship.

(C) 2007 The Chronicle via CSTV U-WIRE