Sitting at home for the NCAA tournament last year left Duke plenty hungry to get back in the field this year.
The Blue Devils got their wish on Monday night and, even though they are in the same Bridgeport Region as the sport’s juggernaut Connecticut Huskies, they’re still plenty happy with the news.
“Remembering what it felt like last year, complete difference,” Duke redshirt junior guard Rebecca Greenwell said “It’s really fun to be relieved heading into it and just have fun with it. I’m ready to get started already.”
The Blue Devils missed the tournament last year for the first time since 1994. But after a turnaround season, Duke (27-5) is seeded No. 2 in the Bridgeport Regional and will play 15th-seeded Hampton at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday (9 p.m., ESPN2).
Duke was ranked No. 9 in the final Associated Press rankings that were released earlier Monday. So there was no guarantee the Blue Devils would be seeded No. 2.
“I was a little surprised we got a two seed, but I think that’s great for us,” said Greenwell, an all-ACC selection who averages 16.4 points per game. “I think it shows how great of a change we’ve had since last year. So I think we are all just excited to get started.”
Being in the same region with Connecticut, which carries a 107-game winning streak into the tournament, would be bad news for any team. That’s especially true when the regional semifinals and final will be played in the state of Connecticut.
But the Blue Devils welcome the challenge – any NCAA challenge – after not getting the chance to play in the event last season.
“Any region with Connecticut might be the toughest one,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “But that’s really what it’s all about. You have to go after the best teams and also put yourself in position to do that.”
In fact, one of Duke’s best players is happy to be in the same region as a couple of the nation’s top-five ranked teams. In addition to No. 1 Connecticut, No.4 Maryland is in the Bridgeport Region as a No. 3 seed.
“I think it’s definitely the toughest one throughout the entire bracket,” said Lexie Brown, Duke’s all-ACC guard. “I think it’s very interesting that the selection show organized it the way that they did. Definitely that they put UConn in there and they put Maryland in there as a lower seed than us considering they are ranked higher in the country. If we both get to that Sweet 16 game, it’s going to be a battle.”
Yes, Brown and Maryland have a shared history. Before she averaged 18.3 points per game to lead Duke this season, she played for the Terrapins on two Final Four teams in 2014 and 2015.
When Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten, she decided to transfer to Duke to stay in the conference. She sat out last season, per NCAA transfer rules.
Now, after experiencing the frustration with her teammates when they missed the tournament in 2016, she finds herself and her team on a collision course with her old team, which she and the Blue Devils could play in the round of 16 if they both win their first two games.
“The only way that I would see Maryland is in the NCAA tournament,” Brown said. “The way it’s played out, with the success that we’ve had and that they’ve had this season, I think it would be a really fun matchup.”
But first, Duke has to win two more games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Blue Devils are unbeaten in 16 games this season.
The first opponent is Hampton (20-12), which upset MEAC regular-season champion Bethune-Cookman, 52-49, in last Saturday’s MEAC tournament championship game to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Pirates are in the NCAA field for the sixth time in the past eight seasons. Hampton has played Duke three times in their last six NCAA tournament appearances.
Temple and Oregon will also play at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, with their game starting at 6:30 p.m.
The two Saturday winners will play in a second-round game on Monday for the right to advance to Bridgeport, Connecticut for the regional semifinals.