The only home cooking the Winthrop women’s 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 women’s 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 men’s and women’s basketball. When Joanne P. McCallie’s Blue Devils host Winthrop at 11 a.m. on ESPN2, they’ll be hunting their 19th straight win at home in the NCAA women’s tournament, and their 132nd straight home win against an unranked opponent. It’s 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.
“I’m excited for (Vernon), I’m excited for all our players to experience this,” Winthrop coach Kevin Cook said Wednesday. Referring to Vernon particularly, he said “I’m happy this dream’s come true for her.”
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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 Winthrop’s colors.
“My dad went to UNC, so we just were raised UNC fans,” said Vernon. “We don’t 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 Saturday’s contest. That’s 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 we’re 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. He’s 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.
“We’re gonna play with a sense of urgency,” he said. “But there is a fine line between being over-amped and playing your game.”
Duke’s 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 NCAA’s second best 3-point shooter.
“We can’t allow them to go off and hit 10 triples,” said Cook. “If they do hit a couple of triples, we can’t hang our heads. We know they’re gonna make a few shots, but we just cannot have extended runs from them.”
There is the fine line between urgency and panic, and there’s also the delicate balance between reacting to Duke’s game plan too much, or not enough. Cook is known to avoid calling timeouts when his team’s opponent is on an offensive run; it’s just his style, to let his team play it’s way out of trouble, something he did successfully in the Big South Conference championship win over High Point.
He admits he can’t afford to do that Saturday.
“I can’t go with my stubborn ways and refuse to call a timeout,” Cook said. “I’m 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 ESPN’s selection show. Vernon has been to men’s and women’s games at Cameron and even went to basketball camp there. Now, she’ll add an even cooler experience to that list.
“I’m excited to play at Cameron,” she said. “It’s a really cool thing. It’s gonna mean a lot to actually get a chance to play a real game there.”