Duke Women’s Basketball: When the Blue Devils Beat the National Champs

In Connecticut it was a frigid January 3rd 2004 and the Duke Women’s basketball team was facing a superb UConn team in the Hartford Civic Center. UConn was 9-0 at this point and Duke was 9-1—having lost the first game of the season to Texas. The Duke team was stacked that year—among the Duke starters were Alana Beard, Monique Currie, Iciss Tillis, Lindsey Harding, and Jessica Foley. Foley wasn’t at quite the star status as the rest but would end up second all-time in 3-pointers for Duke, and she proved the skill this night.

Matching the weather outside, Duke was also frigid during the first half of the game. Beard was 0-7 and UConn led by as many as 20 points. The score was 35-18 at the end of the half—UConn by 17 and Duke showed no signs of life even in the final minutes of the half. The typical reaction for any team playing away, and down by 17 to the top ranked women’s team in America would be to play in grim desperation, just hoping not to be humiliated by a complete blow-out.

In the second half the Huskies continued to outplay Duke. For almost 35 minutes of the game, UConn was better. With a little over four minutes left, Duke was still behind by 14 points. Suddenly Coach Goestenkors signaled full court press. It seems as if even a press wouldn’t shake a veteran top ranked team like UConn. But Lindsey Harding got a steal and Duke scored on that possession. That shouldn’t have shook UConn but after the next turnover, that slightly wild, deer-in-the-headlights look suddenly appeared in the eyes of the Huskies. This was not a typical full court press. The Duke women were like animals out there. The Huskies panicked as 5, 6, 7 turnovers occurred. Somehow, Duke was able to double team every player attempting to come down court. Meanwhile, Alana Beard had gotten hot—she hit 11 points in the final four minutes. The Blue Devils proceeded to go on an 18-3 run.

Beard’s jumper off a steal by Iciss Tillis tied it at 65 with 40.2 seconds in the game. No one scored for about the next 35 seconds. Then Diana Taurasi, high scorer for UConn, hit a running jumper over Beard with 4.7 seconds left in the game to give her team a 67-65 lead. The UConn women had to feel that the game was essentially over. Duke had made a memorable comeback but it wasn’t quite enough. A little over four seconds allows little more than a blind lob down court that will hopefully land in a teammate’s hands. Then it requires the receiver to regain balance, set her feet, measure the distance to the basket, and get off a Hail Mary shot, most likely contested by an opposing player.

Duke’s Lindsey Harding heaved the in-bounds pass to Jessica Foley who had raced down the right wing. It’s true that Foley was a good 3-point shooter but she was only a sophomore, and the pressure was terrific. UConn’s Ann Strother jumped with Foley but who knows if she put every single ounce of energy into the jump because no one truly believed Foley would make the shot from that far out.

For a split second after it slipped through the net the Duke women did not react. The 16,000+ Connecticut crowd suddenly went from a screeching cacophony to total, sickening silence. Then the Blue Devils exploded. Sprinting down court, they mobbed Foley, who ended up underneath the pile.

Huskie players could only stand rigid in the middle of the court, hoping it was only a nightmare, hoping there would be a late whistle for some unknown infraction, hoping that swish they saw was just outside, not inside the hoop. But it was true; immediately after UConn took the lead with a miracle jumper from Taurasi, Duke had scored a basket—no, a 3-pointer to win by one: 68-67.

Both these teams had a club for the ages. Duke ended up 32-4, losing in the Elite 8 to Minnesota. UConn would have a 31-4 record and win the national championship over Tennessee. At least the Blue Devils could boast that they’d beaten the national champion on their home turf.

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