DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — It’s like a welcome-back party for Duke in the NCAA Tournament, complete with home amenities.
Third-year coach Kara Lawson has the Blue Devils as the No. 3 seed in the Seattle 4 Region, taking on No. 14 seed Iona in Saturday night’s first round. It marks the program's first tournament appearance since 2018 and their first time hosting opening-weekend games since the year before that.
“There’s no doubt I’m proud of the team and the strides we’ve made this year,” Lawson said Friday. “We finished 10th in our league last year, and this year we finished second. That’s hard to do in any league, let alone the ACC.”
The Blue Devils (25-6) are one of 16 site hosts for the tournament, with sixth-seeded Colorado and 11th-seeded Middle Tennessee meet in the pod's first game Saturday.
Lawson’s first season ended after four games when the Blue Devils shut down their season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Blue Devils didn’t make the field last year with a 17-13 record in their first full run under Lawson.
“I was kind of upset that we didn’t get to be in it last year,” guard Celeste Taylor said. “But to come back and not only be in the tournament, to be a 3 seed, I think that’s a really great jump, a really great sign of progression in our program."
It's a bit of a throwback, too, to the days when Duke was racking up wins and earning a perennial spot in the NCAA field under Gail Goestenkors and much of Joanne P. McCallie's tenure. In fact, the Blue Devils reached the tournament in 23 of 24 years as of that last 2018 appearance.
And in their 24 all-time appearances, they've won at least one game in each, including Final Four runs in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2006.
Duke is 13-1 at home this season, its lone loss in its last game in Cameron Indoor Stadium to end the regular season against North Carolina.
“As a team where we were projected to finish at the beginning of the season versus where we are now has shown a lot of progress and just goes to show all the work we’ve put in this season,” said Duke center Kennedy Brown, a transfer from Oregon State.
Iona (26-6) is 11-4 in road games, winning its last nine.
“I hope that success carries,” Iona coach Billi Chambers said.
The Gaels won the Mid-American Athletic Conference championship despite a 6-5 start to the season. Iona has lost just once since Christmas behind an offense that ranks eighth nationally in shooting percentage (.474) and second in 3-point percentage (.401).
And the Gaels don’t intend to change their preparation, even playing in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“We approach every game the same way whether it be home or away,” guard Kate Mager said.
The tournament vibe should be rewarding for Colorado (23-8) and Middle Tennessee (28-4).
Colorado is in the tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since a string from 2001-04. The Buffaloes lost in last year's first round to Creighton.
“I would think four years ago a lot of people wouldn’t be able to say Colorado would be in this position,” Buffaloes guard Jaylyn Sherrod said. “So I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”
The Buffaloes hope what they learned a year ago in a first-round loss to Creighton can help them this time.
Middle Tennessee appeared in the 2021 tournament, but that was in the bubble in Texas due to pandemic restrictions.
“We didn’t get the full experience last time,” Middle Tennessee guard Alexis Whittington said. “So this time coming in, I was, like, wow, it’s really my first time to experience everything.”
Blue Raiders coach Rick Insell, who’s in his 11th NCAA tournament with the program, said he can already tell this should more reflect the experience than two years ago.
“There’s not any comparison,” he said. “You would have thought you were in prison during COVID. You had someone guarding your room. You had somebody guarding the floor. You had somebody guarding the elevator.
"I wanted them to come back and experience what it was really like, and I think they’ll get that right here.”
COUNT THEM ALL
Middle Tennessee sold out its ticket allotment and expects more of its fans in the building. Insell is ready to see that number expand because of the location.
“Duke, they’re ‘Blue,’ too, so we’ll claim all them,” he said.
The Blue Raiders find it intriguing to play in famed Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I know it’s a historic place,” Whittington said. “I feel like it’s a big stage. That’s what we wanted.”
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