Harding steps up, leads Duke past No. 1 Terps

DURHAM, N.C. -- Lindsey Harding was first among equals against Maryland on Saturday afternoon. As a result, the Blue Devils might find themselves without equals when the national polls come out early next week.

Harding scored a career-best 28 points, and Alison Bales added 18 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks as Duke seized an early lead against the top-ranked Terrapins and never looked back, cruising to an 81-62 win against a previously unbeaten team that hadn't won by fewer than 11 points since the season's opening night.

Harding's performance, in particular, was the kind of virtuoso showing that fans in Durham have grown accustomed to watching over the years at Cameron Indoor Stadium from stars like Georgia Schweitzer, Alana Beard and Monique Currie.

With Maryland committed to playing man-to-man against Duke, Harding broke down the defense time and again off the dribble. She was too quick for Kristi Toliver, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood or any individual Maryland countered with, and as coach Brenda Frese lamented after the game, the help defense was too slow to react.

"With screens on the ball, I thought Lindsey did a really nice job attacking the basket," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "That's what they did give us. And they were one-on-one, which is fine."

Wary of Duke's other weapons, and hoping the team defense would improve, Frese never adjusted and Harding never let up. She scored 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting in the first half and 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting in the second half.

"This is the best offensive game she's played," Goestenkors said. "She'll score when we need her to, but she's such a great point guard, she'll try to get everyone else involved.

"Today, I think she decided, 'I'm going to make sure we continue to attack.' Sometimes she'll score 17 points or 14 points [in the first half] and then the second half she won't score, or she'll only take one or two shots. And today, she stayed aggressive for 40 minutes."

But after years of disappointment in the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils don't appear interested in forcing new parts into an old system. Harding's starring role was every bit a reflection of the senior guard's often underrated offensive skills, but it was simultaneously as much an example of the team's new collective approach as evidence of one individual's ascension to the vacated throne of Duke roundball royalty.

Like her predecessors, Harding has the ability to score 20 points on any night against any team.

"People don't realize just how quick she is until they have to guard her," teammate Abby Waner said. Ruefully shaking her head, she added, "That's what I get to go against every day in practice."

But perhaps unlike the challenge confronting past stars, doing so on a nightly basis isn't a prerequisite for offensive cohesion.

"I think that it's equal all the way around, because we don't focus on trying to have a go-to player on our team," Duke's Wanisha Smith said after contributing 15 points and four rebounds in an energetic performance. "Everyone on our team can do something great. So we just try to take the pressure off each other and everybody equally contributes."

What's important is differentiating between go-to players in an offensive set and go-to players in a team's mind-set. A player whom the offense is built around, even if the offense consists of little more than waiting around for that player to bale out her teammates as the shot clock winds down, is a go-to player in an offensive set. A player who can be counted on to make the right decisions within an offensive system and to keep her teammates steady at all times is a go-to player in a broader sense.

With Currie, along with Mistie Williams and Jessica Foley, having moved on to the professional ranks after last season's heartbreaking near-miss against Maryland in the national championship game, Goestenkors entered this season with two experienced seniors in Harding and Bales but without a go-to player in any sense of the term.

She didn't necessarily want the former, but she was hoping to find the latter.

"I knew they would be good leaders, and I knew they understood what it takes to be successful at the elite level, but I'm still learning about them feeling comfortable in their new roles, not just as leaders, but as go-to players," Goestenkors said in late November. "They've had great experiences, but they were also complementary players; this year they are our go-to players."

For Harding, that meant knowing when to shoot more than knowing she had to shoot all the time. For with the freedom to take 21 shots in a big-time game comes the responsibility to know when that's a wise move.

"At the end of last year, I probably did have the freedom to do it," Harding said of her offensive role. "But this year, [Coach] G was going to people and she was like, 'Lindsey and Ali, you have the green light.' And when I feel it, I know it, and I know when to pull it back. I did have that freedom today, and I felt like anytime I got a shot, I was going to take it."

For a point guard who played alongside both Beard and Currie, it was a change of pace.

"I liked it," Harding said. "I mean, it's kind of out of the mind-set of a point guard, because a point guard is to set up and to pass it and to make people better. But I have to find a line of, 'OK, when am I going to take it and when am I not?' And so when I see myself scoring 20 points, I'm going to be in a scoring mentality. When I find a different scorer, I'm going to be a distributor."

Six times this season, Harding has scored in single digits. Eight times she has taken fewer than 10 shots. Even after Saturday's outburst, she ranks second on the team in scoring behind Waner. And she ranks second to Smith in assists. And all of that has added up to an 18-0 record and a very solid claim to the No. 1 ranking.

"Lindsey has really accepted that role as a leader," Waner said. "And I don't think anybody has seen her play a full 40 minutes like this. Like Coach G said, she'll play an incredible first half and she'll look to pass more in the second half. But I've seen this every day in practice, and it's really fun to sit back and watch her play."

For all the driving layups, sharp passes and defensive denial Harding compiled against Maryland, a moment that said as much as anything about her role on the team came in the press conference after the game. A question about perimeter defense was posed for any of the three guards present -- usually a sure recipe for several long seconds of silence as each player waits for a teammate to suffer through an answer. But even as Waner looked to her left and Smith looked down, Harding spoke up without hesitation. Taking the lead.

For Harding, it's all about making the most of a final opportunity by doing what she does best, not what those before her have done best.

"I didn't want to have any what-ifs," Harding said, speaking both of the game against Maryland and her senior season. "I felt after our last time we played at the Final Four I had a few what-ifs. I should have taken it more, I should have done this. But I said, you know, whether we come out with a win or not, I am not going to have any what-ifs. I'm going to know I attacked the basket, I'm going to know I played as hard as I could."

Harding certainly looks like Duke's go-to player; just don't call her the team's go-to scorer. No matter what the box score said on Saturday.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.