DURHAM — Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie calls it a dress rehearsal for bigger games in March.
The Blue Devils do get a chance to make a definitive statement Monday, facing host Connecticut, the most dominant women’s college basketball team in recent years, at Gampel Pavilion. The 7p.m. game will be shown on ESPN2 as part of “Big Monday.”
No. 4 Duke (16-0) has the only perfect record in Division I basketball, while No. 3 Connecticut is 16-1, with a five-game winning streak after a 73-72 home-court loss to Big East rival Notre Dame on Jan. 5.
Duke, which hasn’t had a game closer than 10 points this season, has a chance at the No.1 ranking down the road with a win tonight. But coach Geno Auriemma’s team has been the Blue Devils’ biggest nemesis in recent years.
Connecticut, which leads the series 8-3, has won five straight, including four victories over the past three years.
The 61-45 win in Cameron Indoor Stadium last year was a relative squeaker compared to the others, all of those by at least 33 points.
“Before last season it was about (UConn All-American) Maya Moore,” McCallie said. “Could we defend Maya Moore? No. And most people couldn’t either.
“Last year we did some really good things defensively, kind of limited the transition defense and got out on the shooters a little bit more – and ironically the post player (6-foot-5 Stefanie) Dolson hit the first six points from the foul line because we weren’t ready for that. We defended better, and offensively we attacked better but we didn’t finish as much. They beat us by eight points both halves. It was a very consistent game.”
McCallie has coached a win against the Huskies, but it was back in 2004 when she was at Michigan State and the Spartans won in a 67-51 romp at the Hartford Civic Center.
“Gampel is a harder place to play because of the nature of it, but it’s only mental if you want it to be,” she said. “If you’re kind of programmatic, you’re thinking – this is the next opponent and they’re really good, but we’ve still got to defend back-door cuts and we’ve still got to rebound.”
By programmatic she means she wants her team to put the same emphasis on every game, being as good as Duke can be and not worrying where the opponent is ranked or where the game is or what happened last week.
“They’re an excellent opponent and there’s nothing more to say about that,” McCallie said. “We just need to mature as a team.
“I definitely cannot read the minds of young people today. That’s for sure. (Looking ahead) can happen. But for me, you want a ‘program’ mentality which is truly every game’s the same and it’s just another domino.”
Sophomore center Elizabeth Williams wasn’t on the scene when the Blue Devils were losingto the Huskies by more than 30 points. Connecticut did recruit the 6-3 Virginia Beach native, but that was a battle McCallie won.
“It’ll be a tough environment, but I think everyone’s looking forward to it,” said Williams, who is averaging 15.8 points and 6.5 rebounds and is still recovering from the effects of a stress fracture in her lower right leg last March. “We have to be patient. It’s a different team this year.
“Early (in last year’s game) we handled the pressure and then the game kind of settled down. We didn’t score as much offensively as we could have or should have, but if we can make those adjustments I think we’ll be all right.”
Junior guards Tricia Liston and Chelsea Gray, two of the five members of Duke’s No. 1 recruiting class as freshmen, had to suffer through the tough losses of two seasons ago. On Jan. 31, 2011, the Blue Devils were never in contention in an 87-51 road loss, and then fell 75-40 in the NCAA Regional final in Philadelphia in which they played much better but shot 27.8 percent.
“We’re excited,” said Liston, who averages 12.4 points and 5.7 rebounds and has hit 32 of 69 3-pointers. “We haven’t played well against them in the past. It’s kind of a clean slate, and we need to come out ready to play the way we need to play.
“The thing is coming out for the beginning and not taking a minute off. We need to come out with energy and play smart from the tip. I think we all just need to put the pieces together. We’ve had two people playing their best or three playing their best, but we need to all come ready to play.”
Gray, who averages 14 points and 6.3 assists and leads the Blue Devils in assists, steals and free-throw percentage, agreed with Liston about needing to play a complete game.
“It’s going to be a dogfight,” Gray said. “Last year we did a better job of defending than we did before. Some stops we just didn’t get when we were trying to make a run.
“We’ve got to absorb the contact and get to the offensive boards. Connecticut plays the physical game very well and they feed off each other. We’ve played them before and this is kind of a veteran (Duke) team. Out of the gate last time up there we got into ourselves and didn’t really fight and have a strong front.”