Duke's depth, defense do in Lady Vols

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke's Lindsey Harding spent last season on the sideline, watching, learning, thinking things through.

On Monday, Harding was at center stage in what was supposed to be a showdown between No. 1 Tennessee and No. 2 Duke at sold-out Cameron Indoor Stadium. But thanks in large part to Harding, it wasn't that at all. It was the Blue Devil Show, a 75-53 victory that was the kind of thumping Tennessee is used to handing out to other teams.

As Tennessee's Alexis Hornbuckle put it, "I think they had the swagger that we usually carry."

The Cameron Crazies student section was well-prepared for Hornbuckle, giving her the kind of grief opposing men's players typically endure. The Crazies taunted Hornbuckle with empty Wal-Mart bags and chanted, "Wal-Mart!" and "Rollback prices!"

Hornbuckle was arrested for misdemeanor shoplifting at the end of her senior year of high school from a Wal-Mart in her home state of West Virginia. It appeared to be just a senior-prank thing, something for which Hornbuckle was sincerely contrite and embarrassed. The case was resolved with community service and a fine.

Mocking someone's troubles isn't the classiest thing to do -- but it showed that Duke's students were treating the opposing team just like they would for their beloved men's program. And love or hate the Crazies, anytime you have this kind of atmosphere for a women's game, it's something special.

Hornbuckle said the crowd "didn't influence us at all," which is preposterous. Understandably, players rarely want to acknowledge that an outside source like a bunch of blue-wigged, face-painted, clapping, yelling, jumping, stomping loonies would get in their heads. But they did. And the Blue Devils got in Tennessee's pockets. Figuratively speaking, of course. Duke got 15 steals, eight of them by Harding.

"Lindsey was amazing. If there's a better defensive player in the nation, I'd like to see her," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "She did a little bit of everything on the defensive end and really disrupted so many things they wanted to do.

"And then on offense, she took it to the basket when she needed to, she hit the pull-up jumpers and she got the ball to the open player and ran the offense for us. So I thought she had an exceptional game."

Harding, a 5-foot-8 junior, sat out last season, suspended for a violation of team rules. Harding was having a difficult time personally, trying to get her head together, figure out who she was and where she wanted to be.

It seems she has a lot of those answers now, and she's making a case for being perhaps the best point guard in the women's college game. Monday, she had 15 points and four assists to go with her career-high eight steals.

"I'm excited to be back -- I learned so much from last year," Harding said. "Also, I'm excited to play with Monique again, happy that she came back."

That's Monique Currie, the Blue Devils' senior forward who had 13 points Monday night. Currie can look out of control and force things going to the basket sometimes, and she did that Monday. But she can also hit big shots and play superb defense, and by returning as a fifth-year senior, she's helping to give Duke a shot at the program's first national championship.

Ultimately, the reason I made the Blue Devils my preseason pick to win it all -- and have voted them No. 1 all season -- is their depth. Duke comes at you in waves, like a swarm of bees … in fact, kind of like Tennessee did back in 1998, the last year of its threepeat.

The best player on that team -- and one of the best of all-time -- was Chamique Holdsclaw, and she was sitting in the packed stands Monday. So was another former Tennessee superstar, Nikki McCray.

As the game went on, though, the former players and the impressively large Tennessee fan contingent at Cameron didn't have much to cheer about, save rookie Candace Parker proving once again she's a fabulous, impossible-to-shut-down player on offense. Parker finished with 17 points, five rebounds and five assists -- but did have seven turnovers.

But Tennessee guard Shanna Zolman -- who entered the game as the team's leading scorer -- was "a nonfactor" in coach Pat Summitt's words, going 0-for-7 from the field in a scoreless 28 minutes. She was bugged so much by Harding bringing the ball up the court with about 5:30 left, she eventually lost the handle and watched Harding zoom off in the other direction for a layup that ended in a three-point play.

That sequence was symbolic of the night for Tennessee, which had a season-high 22 turnovers, was outrebounded 33-26 and allowed the Blue Devils to shoot 53.6 percent from the field. That included 64.3 percent in the second half, when Duke rocketed away from Tennessee after a 30-23 halftime lead.

"I give Duke all the credit in the world," Tennessee's Sidney Spencer said. "They came out and beat us at everything. They executed well, won all the hustle plays, they outrebounded us. They did everything that usually Tennessee is about."

Duke's depth did wear down Tennessee, although the Orange Crew didn't want to admit that, either.

"We work so hard in the preseason for games like this," Hornbuckle said. "Like [Summitt] said, we bought into fatigue mentally, it wasn't physical at all. We were mental midgets, we didn't step up to the plate."

Uh, yeah … if you think running up and down with the deep Blue Devils' defense all over you doesn't have any physical impact … hogwash. It does -- and it did. However, the mental part was lacking for Tennessee, no question.

"Losing is one thing -- losing the way we lost is something quite different," Summitt said. "It's not acceptable in this program. So we will learn from it."

As for what Duke learned … Goestenkors didn't want to play up this victory too much. After all, No. 3 North Carolina comes in to Cameron on Sunday, and the Tar Heels beat Duke three times last season.

However, this was a night the Blue Devils should enjoy. They were saucer-eyed and overwhelmed in 2003, when a full house at Cameron for the Blue Devils' matchup with Connecticut turned into an edge for the Huskies, who won 77-65. In 2004, Tennessee drew another packed house to Cameron, and Duke lost that one, too, 72-69.

Monday, though, Duke gave the fans chanting "Our house!" the game they were hoping for. Senior Mistie Williams had 10 points and nine rebounds. Sophomore Chante Black and freshman Abby Waner each scored 10 points, and senior Jessica Foley had eight. Black, Waner and Foley all came off the bench.

And we haven't even mentioned junior center Alison Bales, who didn't score but at 6-foot-6 is still a force on defense, or sophomore guard Wanisha Smith, who had seven points, five rebounds and a team-high six assists. Harding and Smith are a one-two punch in the backcourt that few teams can cope with.

Would Tennessee have handled Duke's defensive pressure, especially on the perimeter, better if transferred guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood were still on the team? It stands to reason, but even that wouldn't have made up a 22-point difference Monday.

Certainly, these teams don't really have that much distance between them. And if they meet again in the NCAA Tournament, Tennessee's defense and perimeter shooting might be a lot better.

But on Monday, Duke was the best in the land.

"It was a great game, but it's still just a game," Goestenkors said. "It doesn't change anything. We've still got the ACC to contend with and the NCAA Tournament's a long way away. It was an opportunity to test ourselves, to find out how good we were in this particular situation on this particular day."

And what did they find out?

Goestenkors had to smile at that, saying, "Today, we were pretty good."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.