- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DURHAM, N.C. -- Before this season started, Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie was asked whether there was a more under-recognized very good player in the nation than her senior guard Tricia Liston. This was a textbook case of leading the witness, of course, and McCallie enthusiastically agreed.
But it actually was a legit query because Liston wasn't getting a lot of notice going into her final year with the Blue Devils. Most of the attention was on Duke guard Chelsea Gray, returning from a knee injury, and center Elizabeth Williams. Those two were on the espnW preseason top five players per position and All-American teams. Gray and Williams, not Liston, were on the media's preseason all-ACC team.
However, the coaches' all-ACC team had all three Blue Devils. Which told you something: The people who had to prepare to face Liston knew how hard that was. But perhaps even they didn't anticipate the senior season she was going to have.
Liston -- a Chicago native who grew up in the suburb of River Forest, Ill. -- leads the No. 7-ranked Blue Devils in scoring at 18.2 points per game, which is tied for sixth in the ACC. She is shooting nearly 50 percent from 3-point range (68 of 137, first in the league) and is at 56.3 percent overall (tied for fourth).
She has made more 3-pointers in her career -- 233 -- than anyone else in Duke women's basketball history. Liston passed former Blue Devils guard Abby Waner (222) during Duke's victory over Pittsburgh on Jan. 26.
Her father, Brian Liston, was also a guard in his playing days, first at Fenwick High School -- the same place Tricia went -- then Loyola University in the Windy City from 1978 to 1982. But was he as good a shooter as Tricia?
"I thought I was pretty good," he said, chuckling. "Watching her now, I am not so sure anymore."
What stands out most about this season is that the 6-foot-1 Liston is no longer thought of as "just" a shooter. She has improved her fitness, footwork and defense, among other things.
"She's got a lot to her game," McCallie said. "She's stronger and more vocal. At one point, she was shooting mostly off the pass and coming off screens. Now, she's all over the place. She puts the ball on the floor; she's posting up.
"Versatility is something that we preach at Duke overall. From our standpoint of growing our players, we want to be as versatile as possible. And I credit all our seniors for having some of that."
Duke has needed Liston's growth, especially because Gray again has had her season cut short -- just as she did last year -- with a knee injury.
"It's tough on the court; whenever something like that happens, it changes the dynamics of the team and some roles that people play," Liston said. "We did this last year, though, so ... it's still not easy, but we know what we need to do.
"Off the court, it stinks. Chelsea and I have been great friends since we got here, and she's a great player. It's tough to see someone like that end their college career in such a way, especially someone you're so close to. But she's been so positive and trying to help in any way that she can."
However, Gray's absence on the court means that there is a bigger load on Liston's shoulders. Which she actually was already filling even when Gray was still playing. It's something Liston was ready for. It helped that this past summer, Liston played for USA Basketball in the World University Games in Russia. She averaged 8.2 points for the American squad, which won the gold medal. She said that experience has contributed to her strong senior season.
"Putting on a USA jersey -- it was larger than anything I've ever been a part of," she said. "It helped to practice against players who are the tops in the nation. And then you're playing on the same team with them, and talking with them. And you learn so much from that."
The ultracompetitive "baby" of the family
Liston is the youngest of four athletic sisters, so she was always considered the classic tagalong. Except ... that term suggests the little one running behind an older sibling on the way to a playground, practice court or game.
And that image really just doesn't fit Tricia at all. She's the tagalong who was always running ahead.
Brian Liston coached his daughters in youth basketball. They were competitive and took sports seriously, but Tricia was a bit more serious.
"She always wanted to go to her sisters' practices," Brian said of little-kid Tricia. "As a coach, you want to get there early. Like, with our oldest, Brigid, I'd be in the house saying, 'Come on, we need to get moving!' And Tricia's already sitting in the car, waiting to go."
If you had asked her sisters Brigid, Maura or Clare at a certain point in their lives about Tricia, they might have grumbled that they couldn't escape the little twerp.
"I was really annoying, and I don't think they enjoyed having me around all the time," Liston said. "But at the same time, now, they are my biggest fans."
They are all grown-up in their 20s -- two live in Chicago, and the other is in Boston. They couldn't be prouder of their kid sis, who will celebrate her 22nd birthday on Thursday, when Duke faces NC State at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"My sisters make me who I am today," Liston said. "A lot of the credit goes to them, because I was always competing with them. I'd go to practices with them. Out in the backyard, we'd play one-on-one and [to] 21.
"My mom also coached volleyball, so athletics just ran in the family. I did every sport I could, and I was competitive in all of them. My parents were always coaching us, but also were our biggest supporters at the same time."
When you ask Liston whether she enjoyed all of the sports she tried -- basketball, soccer, volleyball, softball, etc. -- she grins and says, "I liked anything that had a winner and a loser. I just loved the nature of sports."
She misses soccer the most, and if she somehow could have played both that and basketball in college, she would have. But basketball had long seemed to be her true path.
"She just always had a passion for the game, in a good way," Brian Liston said. "Yeah, I was competitive as a kid, too. But hers was a little different. I think she had a better understanding of the game, more than just as a competition.
"She sort of always got what was going to happen on the court, and was able to grasp it more quickly than a lot of other kids her age."
As a youngster, Liston also had proper shooting technique. She learned the correct way and did that from the time she was very small -- but strong -- and then didn't have to relearn the "right" way to shoot.
"I never did the two-hand push, and that really helped me," she said. "Because it's hard to get away from bad habits. I had the right foundation. My dad, right away, got me doing it like that."
And if there was snow or leaves on the family's outdoor court, Liston would be shoveling or sweeping to get in her time shooting.
"My mom would be inside sometimes because it was so cold, thinking, 'This kid is crazy,'" Liston said, laughing. "But she knew I just loved to shoot. I'd rather do that than sit and watch TV or do homework."
Suffice to say, though, that she did homework well enough to get into Duke. And when she did tune in to television, it was often for sports.
"I grew up loving to watch and hear about Duke," Liston said. "So it was like a dream come true to come here. The distance mattered to me, because I didn't want to stay in Chicago for college. Or else I would have gone to DePaul.
"I just felt like I needed to get out of Chicago, because I am going to go back there to live eventually. So being in another part of the country was a plus in coming to Duke -- as well as the academics, athletics and the tradition of basketball here."
The final stretch
Liston loved watching Kobe Bryant when she was growing up. But at that time, Brian said, getting Lakers-Bulls tickets was nearly impossible. Instead, once a season he would take Tricia to Indianapolis to see the Bryant-led Lakers face the Pacers.
On Sunday, much of Liston's extended family plus a lot of friends will go to South Bend, Ind., to watch the Blue Devils take on No. 2-ranked Notre Dame (ESPN and WatchESPN, 1 p.m. ET). Brian and Molly Liston come to a lot of Duke games, but this is one of their closest trips. A lot of Liston supporters also went to nearby Milwaukee when Duke played at Marquette on Nov. 24.
This game at Notre Dame is a big one for Duke, which as a team did not play well against the Irish in Durham on Feb. 2, losing 88-67. But Liston individually had a good performance, scoring 23 points. That came a few days after she'd put up a career-high 29 in a victory at Miami.
If the WNBA comes calling after this season -- which it will; scouts have been impressed by Liston's improvement -- that will be great. But right now, Liston is just thinking about the next thing in front of Duke, which is an early-round host for the NCAA tournament.
During her career, the Blue Devils have won three ACC regular-season titles and two conference tournaments. But they've been knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the regional final each season: by UConn in 2011, Stanford in 2012 and Notre Dame last year.
That hurdle -- to make it to the Women's Final Four, which would be program's fifth trip -- is something Liston's senior class was pretty determined to clear. But Gray's misfortune and other injuries have made the path more difficult.
"We have high standards for ourselves," Liston said. "We're still trying to put it all together."
Overall, though, Liston certainly has had a season so far that any college senior would be very thrilled to experience.
"Breaking the 3-point record was nice, because that's something tangible that you can mark," she said. "But I think the growth I've had throughout my years here is what I'm happiest about. I feel like I've matured as a person, as well as a player. It's a cool process to be a part of."
Incorrectly stereotyped as "just" a shooter meant Duke's Tricia Liston was largely overlooked in the preseason. But after improving her fitness, footwork and defense, she couldn't be playing better in her senior season, writes Mechelle Voepel.