DURHAM, N.C. - For Gail Goestenkors, the threat of potential danger lurks around every corner.
The attacks always come when she is most aloof, so it is now with great trepidation that the Duke women's basketball coach takes her steps in the halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium and on road trips with her team.
Bushes. Closets. Garbage cans. Every possible hiding place where her tormentor might be waiting to spring out must be eyed warily.
Because you never know when Alana Beard might strike next. And scare the holy heck out of you.
"I've come out of the weight room and she'll be hiding, crouching right outside the weight room door," says Goestenkors, smiling. "So now everywhere I walk, I'm just looking around."
One might not expect such playful behavior from a Naismith National Player of the Year candidate. But Beard, a returning first-team All-American, has made a career of pulling off the unexpected on the court as a Blue Devil - why shouldn't her affinity for devilish surprises extend beyond the hardwood? The 5-foot-11 junior guard/forward will have a chance to provide more on-court marvels tonight when her top-ranked team plays host to No. 2 Connecticut at 7 p.m.
The Huskies are riding an NCAA-record 58-game winning streak and boast a Naismith candidate in junior Diana Taurasi. But Beard, whose 23.5 points per game are tops in the Atlantic Coast Conference and eighth in the nation, says she has been preparing for this game like any other.
Which includes trying to scare Goestenkors.
"I did it one day, and I saw that Coach G freaked out," Beard says. "So I was like, 'All right, I got you now. Don't yell at me in practice because I'll get you.' She's so easy to scare. I could just say 'Boo,' and tears will start coming out of her eyes. And I'm like, 'Coach G, chill out.' "
Goestenkors obviously delights in Beard's mirthful efforts to keep her on her toes - as long as she knows when to stop.
"She can scare me off the court, that's fine," says Goestenkors, laughing. "I can deal with that."
To be sure, Beard has never given her coach reason to be fearful while on the court.
Her quickness, body control, footwork and intensity have cemented her as the best slashing scorer and premier defensive player in the nation. Beard ranks fourth on Duke's career points list and her 284 career steals make her the most prolific pickpocket in Blue Devils history.
She has helped Duke to its 20-0 record this season with a mix of highlight-reel plays and workmanlike grit (she leads the team with 7.4 rebounds per game, takes the most charges and is one of the best help defenders in the country).
In a win over Iowa State, Beard blocked a breakaway layup with two hands, saved the ball to a teammate, raced the length of the court, received a pass and converted a layup, avoiding a Cyclones guard who was waiting under the basket to take a charge.
Two games later, she scored a career-high 41 points on 30 field-goal attempts (both Duke records) in a 60-59 win at Virginia. "Alana tends to have her best games when we need her to have her best games," Goestenkors says.
It took Beard a long time, however, to realize what was best for her.
In her freshman and sophomore years at Duke, there was basketball and then there was ... basketball. She would top off three hours of practice with two extra hours in the gym. Miscues in practice - a bad pass, a defensive lapse - frequently led to impassioned tears.
At the end of her freshman year, Beard finally began to venture out of her shell and early last year she had a long talk with former Duke All-American Johnny Dawkins about not overworking that helped her calm down, too.
But it wasn't until this past summer that something finally clicked.
Beard injured her right foot playing pickup, and the coaching staff ordered her to take time off. She sulked, downtrodden, back home to Shreveport, La., and was forced to do something she wasn't used to: nothing.
A perfectionist who loathes anything remotely resembling sloth, Beard went stir crazy immediately. For three weeks, she pounded herself mentally. "Dang, you're so lazy, what are you doing? I bet someone's practicing right now. I bet they're getting better than me."
Desperate to do something, she would go running.
Then it suddenly dawned on her: Just chill out, A.B.
She realized that she was only hurting herself more by running, so she stopped. She spent time with her family. She learned to sit.
"This summer really helped me - showed me that it's about basketball on the court, but when you're off the court, it's about having fun," Beard says. "I think the worst thing was I was afraid to change. And you've got to have some changes in your life."
Changes? Like wearing the clothes of your size-zero friends on campus, just for laughs? Like being named the Most Valuable Player of the Paradise Jam Tournament but having more fun jumping out of the bushes and scaring your teammates and coaches as they walk back from dinner at the team hotel?
"When I came in as a freshman, I don't think the atmosphere helped me any because everyone else was always so serious off the court," Beard says. "So I promised myself that when I become that leader, it's going to be fun. Our road trips have been so fun because everyone laughs, everyone plays around, and it's not always serious."
On the court, it's a different matter.
Beard seems able to turn on her scoring almost at will but sometimes chooses not to, leading some to believe she hasn't come close to realizing her full potential.
"I can't believe I'm saying this because I used to hate it when coaches would say this to me," says Georgia Schweitzer, a Duke assistant coach, "but I think at times she's too unselfish. It's like she kind of sits back and waits and then says, 'OK, now I'll take over.' Well, she should take over right from the jump. Usually, she is like that, and it's somewhat scary to think what would happen if she was like that all the time."
Scary on the court? Might be too much to ask, considering the lack of good hiding places. Although, maybe she could do it after all. Because Beard is done, finally, with hiding herself.
Women's matchup: No. 1 Duke (20-0) vs. No. 2 Connecticut (19-0)
Site:Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, N.C.