DURHAM — Duke looked impressive on the road in the first two rounds of the NCAA womens basketball tournament.
Starting tonight, however, it gets tougher.
With just one full day on campus following a 96-80 win over host No. 7 Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, the No. 2 seed Blue Devils are in Fresno, Calif. to take on third-seeded St. Johns Saturday night (9:04 p.m., ESPN) in the tournaments regional semifinals.
And the Red Storm (24-9) boast a win on its resume the Blue Devils (26-5) lack: St. Johns beat visiting Connecticut 57-56 on Feb. 18, the same Huskies who defeated Duke 61-45 in Durham on Jan. 30. (UConn later got its revenge on St. Johns with a 74-43 romp in the Big East Tournament.)
The de facto home team and No. 1 seed Stanford (33-1) will take on No. 5 seed South Carolina (25-9) in the other regional semifinal. But Duke will have a few extra fans there, since sophomore floor general Chelsea Gray is from Stockton, Calif., about 125 miles away.
St. Johns is a very athletic team, a good, strong team, Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. Everybody can penetrate from all spots. They like transition, they love to press, theyre a very good rebounding team. It will take a good team defensive effort, no doubt.
Theyve got such a competitor in (Shenneika Smith) - shes special.
A 6-foot-1 sophomore, Smith averages 12.2 points and 6.5 rebounds.
McCallie said the Blue Devils, who have advanced all but one Sweet 16 since 1998, have to correct some defensive problems from the Vanderbilt game.
We have to figure out how we gave up 48 points in (the second) half. That was a pretty crushing blow there, she said. But it was great to learn from that to get us ready for next. Weve had some great moments (in the tournament.) We just havent strung together 40 minutes.
Gray said shes definitely looking forward to seeing familiar faces from home.
Ill probably have 40-to-50 family and friends there, she said. We prepared to be on the road during ACC play and our pre-conference schedule, so were kind of used to a hostile environment. But Im excited to be playing in front of a lot of family members and close friends.
Gray had 12 points and 12 assists in the win at Vanderbilt. Five Blue Devils scored in double figures on a 65.6 percent shooting night.
Duke has dressed just nine players over the last month following Richa Jacksons torn ACL, the loss of Amber Henson to a knee operation in December and Chloe Wells departure for this semester following a violation of the schools athletic policy.
Center Elizabeth Williams, the teams leading scorer and rebounder, has been pressing on in the tournament despite a stress fracture in her right leg.
It feels great right now so Im excited to play, Williams said. Its bone and not muscle. It hasnt been feeling that bad, actually.
In the tournament, being the aggressor is important because people are fighting for their lives. So coming in with a stronger mentality and being focused on our team and what we want to do has helped us pretty well.