After posing for pictures with her teammates upon going undefeated at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season, after bustling through the shuffle of senior day celebration, Lexie Brown made her way back back toward Duke’s bench.
Her family was waiting to see her.
She exchanged hugs and smiles with her parents and two of her younger siblings. Her father, Dee, was wearing a long-sleeved gray shirt with the Blue Devils logo on the front and “BROWN” and “4,” her number, on the back in large print.
When Lexie Brown realized her team had made its way back to the locker room, she scurried to the opposite end of the court and disappeared.
These are the moments Brown most cherishes. The winning is nice. Going 16-0 at home after beating Miami 83-70 is, too. The accolades Brown has garnered are recognizable.
Family, though, is what’s most important to her.
Brown sat out last season after transferring to Duke from Maryland. She helped the Terrapins to consecutive Final Fours her freshman and sophomore years, but something was missing. Maryland moved from the ACC to the Big Ten her second year there, making it tougher for her loved ones to watch her play since the team was no longer playing teams along the East Coast.
Maryland’s first conference road game of 2014-15, Brown’s sophomore year, was at Nebraska and the team got snowed in.
“I was happy there, of course, but (my mom) could tell that my heart wasn’t in it, and I just kind of looked a little not like myself,” said Brown, who learned Maryland would be switching conferences a day after she signed.
My dream was always ACC basketball.
Brown, a 5-9 point guard, averaged 12.3 points in her two-year career at Maryland, where she was an All-America selection.
“My dream was never to play at Iowa or Wisconsin,” Brown said of Big Ten competition. “My dream was always to play at UNC and Miami and Florida State.
“My dream was always ACC basketball.”
After a year in the Big Ten, and a year on the bench, she’s back playing and excelling in the conference where she started.
The redshirt junior this season led the No. 13 Blue Devils (25-4, 13-3 ACC) in points (18.2), assists (3.6) and steals (2.8). Entering the Miami game on Feb. 21, Brown was responsible for 40.8 percent of Duke’s total offense and 46.3 percent of its made 3-pointers since conference play opened.
Duke finished its regular season on Feb. 26 with a 95-71 win at UNC, where Brown scored 19 points and tallied a game-best three steals.
The Blue Devils have only allowed three teams to shoot over 40 percent in a game this season, holding their opponents to an average of 33.3 percent with Brown manning the defense.
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said Brown’s addition to the team has helped “not only offensively, which is pretty evident in her confidence and her ability to score and attack, but on the defensive side of the ball, it’s incredible. Just her ability to deflect, to steal, to get one-on-one stops. Lexie’s just brought so much work ethic. She works very hard. She prepares. When you have people like that, it bleeds over to everyone else.”
The Blue Devils, who finished last season with a record of 20-12 and 8-8 in the ACC and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994 with Brown on the bench, start the ACC tournament Friday in the quarterfinals and will play the winner of Thursday night’s UNC-Syracuse game.
Despite her accomplishments this season, Brown’s first year at Duke wasn’t the easiest. Sitting on the bench, often next to her coach, and not being able to contribute when her team was struggling was harder than she expected.
“I think it’s really hard to sit out a year for anybody,” McCallie said. “It’s really hard because you’re not sharing that on-court experience.”
Lexie Brown started 66 of 70 games with Maryland, draining 120 3-pointers, scoring 825 points, dishing 310 assists and swiping 127 steals.
Inside the decision
Brown was destined for basketball.
Her father was a guard who played at Jacksonville before playing eight seasons in the NBA. The Boston Celtics picked him in the first round of the 1990 NBA draft, and Dee went on play with the Toronto Raptors and the Orlando Magic. The former 19th overall pick averaged 11.1 points and 3.7 assists in his pro career.
He won the 1991 NBA Slam Dunk Contest and is currently in player development with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Her mother Tammy played guard at American International.
Brown credits her father with 90 percent of her influence, though. He traveled during his time as a player and coach, but when he was around, the two connected through the game.
Brown graduated from North Gwinnett High School in Georgia as McDonald’s and WBCA All-America selections. She was a top-15 recruit and settled on Maryland her junior year of high school. She also considered Louisville and Florida State. .
One of her early women’s basketball influences was Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver, who played at Maryland from 2005 and 2009 and drew Brown to the program.
Brown averaged 10.1 points her freshman year.
At Maryland, Brown was part of back-to-back Final Fours. In the 2014 Final Four as a freshman, she played 38 minutes and scored 11 points in the team’s 87-61 loss to Notre Dame. The Terps finished 28-7 that season, their last in the ACC. In the following Final Four, Brown picked up 38 minutes and scored 12 points in the team’s 81-58 loss to Connecticut, the eventual champion. Maryland finished 36-3 and went 18-0 in the Big Ten.
Brown averaged 21 points in the Big Ten tournament, where the Terps won the championship after beating Ohio State, 77-74. Brown earned All-Big Ten First Team honors.
Even though Brown shared in the success of Maryland’s basketball program, something was missing as competition destinations got further away from her family.
“That was probably one of the hardest decisions I think I’ve ever had to make,” she said of leaving Maryland.
A turning point
Brown didn’t think sitting out her first year at Duke, whose staff recruited her in high school, would be that bad.
She was back in her dream conference, had spent a summer with her teammates and was preparing for a year of basketball that proved to connect her with the game in an unparalleled way.
But it was hard.
Duke opened the 2015-16 season 11-3, but the losses turned up quickly after the league opener.
“It was horrible. It was bad. It was really hard,” Brown said, letting the words spill out. “It was fun at first, you know, preseason was fun. Everyone was involved. I was like, ‘OK, this isn’t going to be too bad.’ After the scrimmage, that was kind of when it hit me.”
Brown managed well sitting on the bench until Syracuse “blasted” Duke, 86-50, in the ACC opener on Jan. 3, 2016. It would be the last road game she’d attend that season.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ ” Brown said. “I was on the bench, and I really wanted to be out there with them so badly. I couldn’t watch stuff like that happen and literally not be able to do anything about it. And on the road, I couldn’t participate in shootaround, I couldn’t do warmups, I couldn’t do any of that. So, we decided it would be more beneficial for me to stay off the road.
“I think that was the turning point of my sitting-out year.”
Brown used her time away from the court to study Duke basketball and McCallie, eventually finding peace that worked to her advantage.
“She got away from the game a little bit in order to love it again,” Dee Brown said. “I think it was the best thing that happened to her.”
Taking a risk
Before Lexie Brown arrived at Duke, her transfer school of choice over Louisville, she didn’t hear the best thing about McCallie. After she decided on Duke, the school had investigated its women’s basketball program in April 2016 for player and assistant coach mistreatment. McCallie remained head coach after an evaluation by a human resources employee from outside of Duke athletics.
“Even with the whole investigation stuff, a lot of negative things were said about Coach P,” Brown said of the 2005 National Coach of the Year. “My dad had a good relationship with her. He knew the kind of person Coach P was.”
Dee Brown had worked basketball camps at Duke alongside McCallie before Lexie Brown was in college.
“He helped me block all the negativity out,” Lexie Brown said.
Brown has learned from McCallie. Sitting on the bench next to the coach during her year off, she learned the value of communication.
The lack of it during the 2015-16 season was obvious, Brown said. Duke finished 8-8 in the ACC that year, one of its worse in 21 years.
After the season, sophomore wing Azura Stevens transferred to Connecticut and freshman Angela Salvadores, who started 15 games, left Duke to play in Spain.
“(I learned) how important communication is with your teammates, especially with Coach P,” Brown said. “She loves to have someone she can talk directly to to get her message out to a team. I really learned her mannerisms, what to say during a game, what not to say during a game, what she wants from her point guard.
“I made it a point to learn Coach P.”
She motivates everybody. She yells at everybody, and we appreciate it, honestly. Even if we don’t want to hear it.
Duke forward Kendall Cooper on Lexie Brown
Coming into this season, Brown was a Nancy Lieberman Award Candidate and named to the ACC Newcomer watch list.
At the end of the regular season, she’s one of 10 Lieberman Award finalists, one of 30 Naismith Player of the Year candidates and is on the Wade Trophy watch list.
She set an ACC record this season with 56 straight free throws made. The previous record was 40. During the Blue Devils’ game against Miami on Feb. 19, she was 4 for 4 from 3-point range and 8-of-8 from the stripe, helping Duke to a season-high mark of made free throws with 26.
“She’s going to score with a hand in her face anyway, but if you don’t have a hand in her face, it’s basically a layup,” said Miami coach Katie Meier of Brown. “She’s just really dialed in. She’s been dialed in all season. It’s effortless. She knows big moments; she knows how to break someone’s back.”
This has been the season of my life.
And now, more often than her last season at Maryland, Brown’s family has been able to watch her in her big moments at Duke. They’ve seen her almost as often as they did when she was playing in high school, Brown said.
Her parents and two of her younger siblings sat behind Duke’s bench for the Miami game. She also has family along the East Coast that has attended some of Duke’s away games.
“Maryland’s a great situation. This is a team that could go to another Final Four. (Lexie) could have been there, maybe got her number retired, but she wanted something different,” Dee Brown said. “We have a close family. Everything we do is family. If I get a job, I talk to the family. They’ll jump in the car, they’ll drive anywhere. ‘We going to see Lexie? Let’s go see Lexie.’ Not that she was unhappy at Maryland, I think she wanted her family to come and watch her play.
“You can tell it makes her a better player.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
ACC women’s basketball tournament
Duke vs. UNC-Syracuse winner
When: 8 p.m. Friday
N.C. State vs. Louisville
When: 11 a.m. Friday