Duke women’s basketball team starts with less pressure

For the first time in about six seasons, Duke won’t be picked by many to play in the Final Four in women’s basketball.

And while veteran coach Joanne P. McCallie says she would rather be the ACC’s “top dog,” coaching a team that’s not under such pressure should be a lot of fun.

Duke had its annual preseason media day on Wednesday next to Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the most striking thing about it was the dearth of familiar faces.

Gone from last season’s squad are first-round draft picks Tricia Liston and Chelsea Gray, fellow seniors Haley Peters, Richa Jackson and Chloe Wells, and point guard Alexis Jones who transferred to Baylor.

The only starter returning is All-American center Elizabeth Williams.

“Everyone wants to do very, very well,” McCallie said. “I think this team is going to turn inward towards each other and I see them doing that. There are doubters and comments and things of that nature, but I thing they’re going to insulate themselves and enjoy the process.

“That’s a really fun team to coach, because they’re listening. And the freshmen are a great group. You may not see that play where we fly up and down the court and there’s a no-look All-America point-guard pass, but we’ll be able to use the pass to move the ball quickly.

Williams averaged 13.8 points, 7.6 steals and 3.1 blocks per game as the Blue Devils went 28-7 last season.

“It’s different,” said the 6-foot-3 center, who should compete for national player of the year honors if the Blue Devils have a solid season. “We have a whole new group. But it’s exciting, though. We aren’t under any pressure.

“There’s a whole new dynamic because all of our new players bring something different to the table. But it’s my senior year so I have a lot I want to accomplish.”

Other likely early starters include 6-4 sophomore forwards Oderah Chidom (5.7, 4.0) and Kendall Cooper (2.1, 2.0) and 5-10 senior guard Ka’lia Johnson (4.1, 2.7). All three saw increased playing time and their games visibly blossomed as Gray and Jones both suffered season-ending injuries and Wells left the team late last season.

Ready to hit the floor for her first game as a Blue Devil is 6-1 redshirt freshman guard Becca Greenwell, who began practicing with the team in January following an ACL tear.

“A lot of people don’t expect us to play as well this year, but we’re not really paying attention to any of that,” said Greenwell, who said she hopes to take a run at Liston’s career 3-point records. “We don’t have as much pressure on us. I think we’re going to come out and surprise a lot of people because practice has been going really well.”

Forward Amber Henson, who is a senior in the classroom and a sophomore on the floor, should push for frontcourt playing time while pesky senior point guard Jenna Frush went from walk-on to scholarship player last week.

Duke will have five newcomers and four are freshmen.

McCallie is hoping 5-7 junior transfer Mercedes Riggs (Salt Lake C.C.) can provide immediate backcourt help.

“It’s been a great transition,” Riggs said. “It’s fun here because of the competition. But the transition has been very smooth and I’m loving it. I think I’m a very energetic player who can help us compete even more.”

The incoming freshmen are 6-5 Cary High alumna Azura Stevens, who plays everywhere but center, along with two posts in 6-4 Erin Mathias and 6-3 Lynee Belton and 6-0 wing Sierra Calhoun.

Duke will play its first outside exhibition game on Oct. 30 against Limestone, open the regular season Nov. 16 at Alabama and at home Nov. 23 against Marquette. The ACC opener is at home on Jan. 4 against Wake Forest.