A No. 15 seed has never beat a No. 2 in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Winthrop, a 15 seed making its first appearance ever in the tournament Saturday, will travel to Durham, N.C., to face No. 9 Duke, a No. 2 seed, at 11 a.m.
“A game like this is like going to Vegas and they hand you the biggest set of dice and they say, ‘guy, you’ve got one roll,’ ” Winthrop coach Kevin Cook said after Wednesday’s practice. “These things happen; that’s why you play the games. Eventually, a 15 is gonna’ beat a two.”
Yes, Winthrop is playing Duke – Duke – at Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of the Crazies of the same name and one of the sweatiest, most oppressive basketball environments at any level. But the Blue Devils’ backcourt has been tattered by three season-ending injuries and they turn the ball over at a steady rate. As Cook queried, “Why not us? Why not now?”
For starters, depth, usually a big disadvantage for a 15 seed, will not work against Winthrop in this game. The Eagles (24-8) have been playing with essentially a seven-player rotation since the beginning of the season. The Blue Devils (27-6) have lost three players, seniors Chelsea Gray and Chloe Wells and sophomore Alexis Jones, to season-ending injuries at different junctures of the year. Duke is also now playing with a seven-player rotation, but has only had six games to get used to the situation.
Staying out of foul trouble will be paramount for both teams. Cook said to expect matchup zone defenses from Duke and Winthrop, as they look to avoid cheap fouls that sometimes pop up in more active man-to-man defenses. All five Winthrop starters – Dequesha McClanahan, Erica Williams, Taylor Calvert, Samiya Wright and Schaquilla Nunn – average over 30 minutes of action per game and will need to be on the floor Saturday at least that much.
Since Jones injured her knee in late February, Duke has had five players, usually starters, topping 30 minutes-plus in every game. Gray, who went down after 17 games, and Jones were the team’s two main point guards, exacerbating an issue that already hounded the Blue Devils, turnovers.
This is the second big issue that could tip a historic upset in Winthrop’s direction. The Blue Devils average 17.3 turnovers per game and have coughed the ball up at least 15 times in their last 12 games.
Gray and Jones had combined for 45 starts this season at the point and both were averaging double-figure points in a three-guard lineup preferred by Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie. Instead of one or two recognized ball-handlers on the court at all times, Duke has gone to a committee approach with varying levels of success.
Winthrop forces 16.6 turnovers per game and excels in transition with McClanahan piloting Eagles breaks. Taking advantage of the opportunities Duke offers will be critical for the underdog visitors.
“We’ve got to try and manufacture some easy baskets,” said Cook. “It’s going to be a little tougher to score on them in the halfcourt.”
Against Notre Dame in the ACC championship game March 9, Duke struggled getting into its offense as McCallie’s team was limited to nine assists while committing 20 turnovers. Duke was 0-for-5 from the 3-point line, the only time it has been shut out from beyond the arc this season.
Still, it’s important to remember that was the ACC championship game against a national championship contender. The Blue Devils’ six losses this season came against No. 2 Notre Dame (three times), No. 13 North Carolina (twice) and No. 1 Connecticut. Not exactly Liberty or High Point.
“They’re one of the elite programs in the country, banged up or not,” said Cook. “The team understands what we’re up against, but I don’t think we’ll have any fear.”
The Eagles shouldn’t be over-awed. Back in December, Winthrop lost a noon game to South Carolina, which earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, by just eight points (69-61). The Eagles had the South Carolina lead down to four with about 4 minutes left to play before fading late. It was a useful experience, especially adjusting to an early start time similar to Saturday’s pre-noon tip.
“We just got off to a sluggish start,” said Cook about the South Carolina game. “We’ve been practicing at 11 o’clock all week, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”
Duke’s jaunt to the ACC tournament championship game was a bit of an underdog run, one that surprised fans of women’s college basketball and that the Blue Devils players and coaches embraced. But far from a Cinderella, Duke has been to the NCAA’s Big Dance every year since 1994, as well as four Final Fours and two national championship games. The Blue Devils are never an underdog in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t think they’re flying under anybody’s radar,” said Cook. “They’re certainly not under our radar. And nobody’s talking about Winthrop, but that’s okay. I’d rather them be talking about Winthrop after the game, than before it.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T