DURHAM, N.C. — They walked off the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium dejected and frustrated, and not just because their season was over. Battling history and trends, as well as a talented Duke team that's among the nation's best, Hampton University's women were within sight of the summit, but unable to push through.
The Lady Pirates' 67-51 first-round NCAA tournament loss to Duke on Sunday goes into the books as yet another game in which a No. 2 seed beat a 15-seed, which is as reliable as the sunrise in the women's game.
But Hampton made the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament champs sweat well into the second half. The Lady Pirates were within a play or two of making it really interesting on a day when their fans and pep band carved out a happy, noisy niche at one of college basketball's shrines.
"They know," Hampton U. coach David Six said of his players. "They know, and the country knows. The country knows we're not a 15 seed. It's unfortunate that it had to come to this, that we had to come here to prove that. But we proved that today. Not one of those young ladies is going to walk out of here with their head down."
Hampton (28-6) saw its 19-game winning streak come to an end, allowing the most points since November and the third-most all season.
Fifth-ranked Duke (31-2) extended its streak of never losing an NCAA first-round game (20-for-20) and winning its last 17 NCAA games at Cameron. The Blue Devils have won 36 of their last 38 non-conference games at home, the losses to national power Connecticut.
But Duke saw a 19-point lead trimmed to six midway through the second half. HU missed a couple of opportunities to draw closer, before Duke's size and patience took over.
"I really liked our poise and focus when they challenged," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "I've been a mid-major coach before and I'm sorry for Hampton that they were a 15 seed, because they were trying to get their first NCAA tournament victory, and they should have been a higher seed.
"They did everything right, and then they had to come play Duke at Duke. I say that, I've been there before. And my heart goes out to them because they're trying to build a special program, just like we all are. It's just too bad because they're a fantastic team. Some of those women could play on any team. They might be the most athletic team we played, including our ACC teams."
Keiara Avant, the MEAC Player of the Year, scored 14 of her team-high 18 points in the second half, and guard Olivia Allen 12 of her 15 as Hampton erased nearly all of a 17-point halftime deficit.
"I think we definitely were settling," Six said of HU's first half. "It's a big stage. At halftime, we talked about, 'This is what we do; let's not do anything different.' We obviously made some adjustments."
The biggest adjustment was simply attacking Duke at both ends of the floor. The Lady Pirates used their quickness to go at and around the bigger Blue Devils. HU trapped and double-teamed on the defensive end, as Duke became passive and impatient for roughly an eight-minute span midway through the half.
"We were able to get off to a good start," Six said. "We were able to turn them over defensively in the second half. We got after them. I told them I thought we were backing up too much. If we have to go out of here, let's go out of here moving forward. I thought that they did that."
Down 46-40, Alyssa Bennett missed a short shot along the baseline and Nikki Hamilton missed a driving shot on the next trip.
Duke went to work inside after that. Forward Elizabeth Williams (18 points, six rebounds, three blocks) converted an offensive rebound and then scored on a layup after a Tricia Liston pass. That began a 10-2 run in which all five baskets were from point-blank range.
"I think it was really important to get paint shots, especially in a game like this," said Williams, the 6-foot-3 All-ACC sophomore from Virginia Beach. "We want to create contact, try to get to the foul line and try to get the easiest shots we can get. Getting stops on the other end also fueled the run."
Twenty of the Blue Devils' 35 second-half points were in the paint. Duke was plus-eight rebounding in the second half after Hampton played them to a tie on the boards in the first half.
"Coming into it, we knew they were definitely oversized," Avant said. "Our goal was to try to push them off the block, get them out to 3-point range, and we knew that we could deny them on the perimeter. Definitely, defensively if we could have gotten them off the block a little more instead of letting them post us up inside, it would have definitely made a difference in the game."
Liston led all scorers with 20 points, including several dagger 3-pointers at the end of possessions. Freshman point guard Alexis Jones filled the stat sheet with 11 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.
Ariel Phelps (8 points, 10 rebounds) battled the Blue Devils' bigger front line. Hamilton, the all-conference guard, gutted through the game with a foot injury that contributed to a 1-for-15 shooting performance.
No 15-seed has ever beaten a No. 2 seed — the streak is now 0-for-80 — since the women's field expanded to 64 teams in 1994. The MEAC remains winless in the women's tournament since '94.
But Six and Hampton are getting closer, especially compared to their last trip to Duke, a 72-37 loss in the 2009 tournament.
"I thought that the first year," Six said, "maybe the kids were overwhelmed a little bit on the big stage, first time for them playing in the NCAA tournament. Also, I believe I'm a better coach after four years, in terms of knowing what it's like, being able to prepare them better. I thought that we did that. We knew that we were well prepared. Preparation for us is the key. It's been the key all year."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun