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Friday, March 21, 2014
Guard play leads way in Durham

By Graham Hays
espnW.com

DURHAM, N.C. -- The season is no longer about what you can be. It's about what you are.

Whether that's two guards you can't take your eyes off trading highlights in a classic or one guard whose ability to blend in helped ensure a rout.

Behind plays to remember from Brittany Hrynko and DePaul's entire backcourt, the seventh-seeded Blue Demons beat No. 10 seed Oklahoma 104-100 in the highest scoring regulation game in women's NCAA tournament history. And with Ka'lia Johnson working quietly behind the scenes of a dominant post performance, second-seeded Duke beat No. 15 Winthrop 87-45.

Brittany Hrynko, Aaryn Ellenberg
Brittany Hrynko had 19 points and five assists for DePaul.

After Duke rolled to its win in the opening game, it looked for a time that the second game of the day would offer only slightly more reason to skip the burst of spring weather outside and stay indoors. DePaul maintained a multiple-possession lead for much of the first half and rolled off a 9-0 run in the final 44 seconds to take a 50-34 halftime lead.

And that's exactly when Oklahoma's Aaryn Ellenberg put together one of those performances that make the month what it is.

The Sooners senior finished with 36 points on 12-of-22 shooting, including 26 points and three steals in a second half that saw Oklahoma outscore DePaul 66-54 -- more points than Cal, Florida State, Oklahoma State or Syracuse needed to win first-round games Saturday.

"I think it's appropriate that Vegas' last game in an Oklahoma uniform, she scores 36 and gets key steals," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said of the guard who goes by the nickname that doubles as her hometown. "She just played really possessed offensively, and she's done that on occasion throughout her career. When she does, there's not a whole lot you can do about it. It's really fun to watch. I thought every phase of her game -- defensively, offensively, rebounding, everything -- I thought she was really engaged tonight. Her best version of herself for 40 minutes."

The problem was that as good as she was, Ellenberg couldn't singlehandedly outscore DePaul's backcourt. Not with the scoreboard rolling at a rate that left DePaul coach Doug Bruno to harken back to a ride around nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Blue Demons starters Hrynko, Chanise Jenkins and Megan Rogowski combined for 54 points, shooting 54 percent from the field in the process, and 12 assists. And the starting backcourt had help; freshman guard Jessica January added 14 points and three steals off the bench.

The Sooners led by as many as five points after Ellenberg ignited a 24-point swing in less than 10 minutes on the game clock. But a 3-pointer from Hrynko tied the score at 84 with 5:43 to play. It wasn't tied long, as Ellenberg scored 10 seconds later to put her team back in front. But on the next possession, with Ellenberg giving her a little more than an arm's reach of space, left perhaps ever so slightly flat-footed by the pace, Hrynko rose and hit another 3-pointer to put her team back in front 87-86. Work remained but DePaul never again trailed.

"She's been randomly taking those shots since she got here," Bruno said of the junior who has been a first-team all-Big East honoree in each of the past two seasons. "What she's growing into is understanding the ebbs and flows of the game and when [she should use] her ability to get to the paint and facilitate for other people -- she's just learning when to get to the rim and facilitate and when to take them.

"She's made those shots throughout her career, believe it or not."

Ka'lia Johnson, DeQuesha McClanahan, Taylor Calvert
Ka'lia Johnson's six points, five rebounds and three assists helped free up teammates Tricia Liston and Richa Jackson.

Her final act matched the coach's words. With the game once again level at 97, Hrynko drove into lane with a little more than 40 seconds remaining and somehow released an almost-blind pass back over her head to Rogowski wide open in the corner. It wasn't a good pass, both passer and receiver agreed. But it got there. Just 2-of-10 from the field in the second half, Rogowski buried the shot.

Now consider that Hrynko, Jenkins and Rogowski all played on the same court a year ago in the first round of the NCAA tournament. As two sophomores and a freshman, they combined to hit just 8-of-38 shots in a 73-56 loss against Oklahoma State.

That was the team it was. This is the team it is a year later. It didn't have leading scorer Jasmine Penny for long stretches because of fouls, but it had its backcourt.

As Bruno said, the cliché about survive and advance refers only to effect. What's really at issue is the cause.

What will a team do to influence its survival?

"That's back on the little things that these players have been doing since they walked out of this gym playing a really poor game against Oklahoma State," Bruno said. "This season started a year ago with one of our worst NCAA performances against Oklahoma State. We limped into the tournament last year and we limped out of this arena."

Johnson didn't limp out of Cameron Indoor Stadium a year ago. She strolled out with the rest of her Duke teammates after wins in the first two rounds, bound for Norfolk, Va., and the Sweet 16.

But then a sophomore, she was incidental to what the Blue Devils were a season ago.

Johnson played just seven minutes in the first round against Hampton and three minutes in the second round against Oklahoma State.

Duke probably could have pulled someone out of a campus intramural league to play alongside Richa Jackson, Tricia Liston, Haley Peters and Elizabeth Williams and still come away with a win against the Big South champion in the first round. That isn't to diminish what Winthrop did in winning a school-record 24 games this season, but an undersized team found itself in exactly the wrong matchup against waves of height that Winthrop coach Kevin Cook compared to facing the French Foreign Legion.

The Blue Devils more than doubled up the Eagles on the boards and effectively closed off all access to the lane.

They didn't even need to tax Williams and Peters all that much. Freshman Oderah Chidom, who hadn't scored in double figures since late January, scored 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Classmate Kendall McCravey-Cooper, who hadn't scored in double figures all season and totaled just one point in her four most recent appearances, scored 14 points on 7-of-7 shooting and added 10 rebounds.

"They're long and they're very strong." Cook said.

But to make that asset matter as the competition stiffens, be it in career days from the freshmen or the more familiar cast of characters, they need point guard play. And it can't come from Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones.

Aaryn Ellenberg
Aaryn Ellenberg hit 12 of 22 shots, including seven 3-pointers, for 36 points.

After some discombobulated early possessions against Winthrop, Duke settled into something more closely resembling offensive cohesion as the first half wore on. A 3-pointer from Liston on the right wing came off an assist from Williams when the center pulled the defense in toward her in the high post and then kicked the ball out to the open shooter, but it was Johnson who made the entry pass to Williams -- the pass that led to the pass that led to the shot.

A minute or so later, she was an outlet valve at the top of the key when Liston didn't have the look she wanted off the dribble on the left wing. The ball went to Johnson and then went right back to Liston, who had reset in better shooting position outside the 3-point arc on the wing. The shot went down and the Blue Devils were up nine and rolling.

These were not masterpieces of point guard play. They represented basic, fundamental ball movement in a half-court set. And if Johnson keeps supplying that, Duke is in business.

Saturday's line of six points, five rebounds, three assists and a steal in 31 minutes is almost as valuable to Duke as what Hrynko and Ellenberg provided their teams. With Johnson playing minutes that matter, Liston and Jackson are free to spend at least parts of each game at their more natural positions on the wings.

As recently as five or six weeks ago, in games against North Carolina, Maryland and Notre Dame in the span of two weeks in February, Johnson played a total of 10 minutes (she did log 14 minutes, a veritable marathon, against NC State in the same span). Even so, she never heard the clock ticking down on her opportunity to contribute. She wouldn't have picked the means by which it finally came, the injuries to both Gray and Jones, but she was ready.

"If I would have thought that, I wouldn't be the player I am today," Johnson said of doubts about the minutes ever coming. "I can't dwell over the minutes I'm getting, the minutes I'm not getting. I just thought about getting better and the team getting better. I think over the years, we've gotten better. I just always worked hard in practice, in the minutes I got in games. I just never sulked like, 'Oh, I'm not getting these minutes.' That takes time and energy away from getting better."

This isn't the team Duke was supposed to be. It might be the team DePaul had a chance to be. But they play Monday night as what they are, the Blue Devils a team with tremendous size, a great shooter and all hands on deck at point guard, and the Blue Demons a small team with a fast engine.

All you can do this time of year is be yourself and hope that at its best, that's enough.

Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't.

"The most I can take away from it is my effort," Ellenberg said after her final college game. "I gave all I had for 40 minutes. I don't have anything to hang my head about."