DURHAM, N.C. — The only home cooking the Winthrop womens basketball team will get this weekend came Thursday night at the Vernon household.
Corn, green beans, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, chicken, barbecue, biscuits and dessert were served to the team at the home of Eagles redshirt freshman Zoe Vernon, who grew up about 15 minutes from the campus of Duke University. Winthrop plays the Blue Devils on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA womens tournament at the impregnable Cameron Indoor Stadium, a building where visiting teams are known to not get many favors from referees.
Duke has made Cameron a dark blue hole for visitors playing mens and womens basketball. When Joanne P. McCallies Blue Devils host Winthrop at 11 a.m. on ESPN2, theyll be hunting their 19th straight win at home in the NCAA womens tournament, and their 132nd straight home win against an unranked opponent. Its a daunting but mouth-watering task for this Winthrop group, especially Vernon who grew up equal parts an ardent lover of the North Carolina Tar Heels, and hater of the Duke Blue Devils.
Im excited for (Vernon), Im excited for all our players to experience this, Winthrop coach Kevin Cook said Wednesday. Referring to Vernon particularly, he said Im happy this dreams come true for her.
Vernon, a redshirt freshman who missed almost all of last season after tearing her right ACL for the second time, grew up smack dab in the middle of Tobacco Road around Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. She is well acquainted with the rivalry between those two schools and her allegiance has never faltered, even while wearing Winthrops colors.
My dad went to UNC, so we just were raised UNC fans, said Vernon. We dont like Duke at all.
Vernon quickly used up her four-ticket allotment that each player receives, borrowed a few from a couple of teammates and will have friends and family still buying more for Saturdays contest. Thats good for the Eagles, who will need all the help they can get on the Blue Devils raucous home floor, especially with the Cameron Crazies fresh off a spring break that ended last Sunday.
I think it will be, at first, a little overwhelming, said Vernon, who attended Carolina Friends High School in Durham. But once we just start playing, I think it will be like any other game. There will be more fans than were used to, but I think that will fire us up and make us play harder.
Cook has coached in big environments before, including Cameron, where he brought a WNBA travel team on several occasions. Hes also been to the NCAA tournament three times as an assistant coach at Kansas and was an assistant during the Houston Comets four WNBA title-run in the 1990s. Ever-relaxed, Cook hopes his team feeds off of that calm.
Were gonna play with a sense of urgency, he said. But there is a fine line between being over-amped and playing your game.
Dukes turnover troubles this season have been pointed out. Winthrop will need to take advantage of some of those opportunities to quiet the Cameron crowd, which averaged over 5,000 per game this year, and get easy buckets. The Eagles will just as carefully have to mind their own ball-handling to prevent the Blue Devils from getting blue-hot and running up a big lead, especially through senior Tricia Liston, the NCAAs second best 3-point shooter.
We cant allow them to go off and hit 10 triples, said Cook. If they do hit a couple of triples, we cant hang our heads. We know theyre gonna make a few shots, but we just cannot have extended runs from them.
There is the fine line between urgency and panic, and theres also the delicate balance between reacting to Dukes game plan too much, or not enough. Cook is known to avoid calling timeouts when his teams opponent is on an offensive run; its just his style, to let his team play its way out of trouble, something he did successfully in the Big South Conference championship win over High Point.
He admits he cant afford to do that Saturday.
I cant go with my stubborn ways and refuse to call a timeout, Cook said. Im gonna manage this game.
Vernon, who plays just over six minutes a game for Winthrop, knocked down a first half jumper in the win over High Point. She already had an inkling that Winthrop would play Duke this past Monday and was glowing when the matchup was confirmed by ESPNs selection show. Vernon has been to mens and womens games at Cameron and even went to basketball camp there. Now, shell add an even cooler experience to that list.
Im excited to play at Cameron, she said. Its a really cool thing. Its gonna mean a lot to actually get a chance to play a real game there.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twttier: @BretJust1T