DURHAM — Joanne P. McCallie has largely avoided the external pressure, if only because women’s basketball in North Carolina commands modest media attention compared to other pursuits. She knows the narrative, though, recalling with a touch of amusement hearing Dean Smith say he was regarded as a “choker” after his North Carolina squads went to the Final Four six times from 1967 to 1981 without winning a national championship.
A similar reputation attended Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski after taking four teams to the Final Four between 1986 and 1990, only to come away without a title. Of course both men’s programs ended those droughts with multiple NCAA championships, muting criticism of their Hall of Fame coaches.
McCallie and her Duke women’s program confronted similarly high expectations entering this season. “I think, honestly, the pressure is mounting, and it’s not even Christmas yet,” TV basketball commentator Debbie Antonelli said last week.
A prime opportunity to change perceptions arrived on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke, undefeated and ranked second in the country, hosted undefeated and top-ranked Connecticut, the colossus of the women’s game and the defending national champions.
“I’m looking for a shift,” McCallie said earlier this year. “Something’s going to shift. Something’s going to go – boom! And you’ll know it when you see it. That will be the beauty of it.”
But the long-awaited shift did not come against UConn, which instead lowered the boom in a suspenseless 83-61 victory.
The game stayed close only through the first media timeout. Then the Huskies went on a 24-4 tear as Duke displayed almost breathless impatience, fumbling the ball, losing concentration, and employing what McCallie described as “horrible shot selection.” Afterward the coach said, “It’s very disappointing, because we didn’t fight throughout.”
The defeat does not lessen the fact Duke is among the elite women’s programs. The Blue Devils have reached 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments – 13 under Gail Goestenkors from 1995 through 2007 and six out of six years under McCallie.
Despite the coaching change, Duke hasn’t missed a step, advancing at least to the Sweet Sixteen in 15 of the last 16 years. The Devils captured eight ACC Tournament titles since 2000, including three of the last four. They’ve won 24 or more games every season since 1998, finished each of those years in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll.
Duke also is the perennial leader in ACC women’s attendance, drawing more fans than the Boston College men and usually more than Miami’s men. Cameron was filled almost to the rafters against UConn.
But, good as they are, the Blue Devils’ achievements have not met their aspirations. Four times they reached the Final Four under Goestenkors without earning an NCAA title, including a loss in overtime against Maryland in the 2006 national championship contest. More recently, they’ve lost in the Final Eight under McCallie for four straight years.
“We want to get to the top of the mountain,” McCallie said. “We don’t want to be a part of the top, we want to go to the top. All of these experiences are paving the way for us.”
A key hurdle, both for other women’s programs generally and for Duke in particular, has been UConn, eight times the NCAA champs under head coach Geno Auriemma.
“They are the New York Yankees,” Antonelli, a former N.C. State player, said of Auriemma’s program. “They are a professional franchise. They have the look, the swagger, the confidence.”
The Huskies reached the last six Final Fours and lost only 13 games over the past six years combined. They are now 11-0 in 2013-14.
Other programs have mounted challenges to Connecticut’s hegemony – including new ACC member Notre Dame and Louisville, joining the league next season – but none for a sustained period since Tennessee won consecutive titles in 2007 and 2008. “I’m curious to see, not just Duke, is women’s basketball actually falling further away from Connecticut, or are we getting closer?” Antonelli wondered before the Huskies descended upon Durham.
McCallie, to her credit, has scheduled UConn six times in seven years at Duke. The results have not changed, even as her teams improved. In seven meetings, counting one in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, McCallie’s Devils have lost by an average of 28 points. Scrappy in most circumstances, they often appear tentative for devastating stretches against Geno Auriemma’s clubs.
Sound defeats at Connecticut’s hands are hardly peculiar to Duke. North Carolina met UConn five times since 2008 and lost all five by margins ranging from 11 to 51 points. This year’s Huskies averaged 40 more points than their opponents over the first 10 games. Four starters average in double figures, led by forward Breanna Stewart – whom McCallie tabbed “the best player in the country” – and seniors Bria Hartley, a guard, and All-America center Stefanie Dolson.
The Huskies ran their offense with crushing efficiency against Duke, recording 25 assists on their 30 baskets while hitting half their 24 shots from 3-point range.
Duke has its own stars, from sophomore guard Alexis Jones to junior center Elizabeth Williams, a two-time All-American, to seniors Tricia Liston, Chelsea Gray and Haley Peters. Gray, another two-time All-American with a rare knack for passing the ball, is back after a dislocated kneecap shortcircuited her season and her team’s ambitions in 2013.
The seniors have lost only twice at Cameron during their Duke careers, both times to UConn.
McCallie, a Big Ten product, introduced a more muscular style and a matchup zone when she took over Duke’s program in 2007-08. “We’re a tough team, we’re physical, we bang, we play 100 percent,” Liston declared in preseason. Duke has become more versatile and adept on offense. The Devils regularly beat ranked opponents – this year California, Purdue and Oklahoma.
But the Devils still seek that elusive, defining victory, one that lifts them to the high ground they covet.
“The past is the past, but we’re trying to get over that hump,” said Liston, a senior sharpshooter who was among four Duke players in double figures against the Huskies. “We’re trying to do something we haven’t done before.”