The Plight Of Abby Waner

By Jeff Lippman - January 16, 2008


"She's right. We are Duke and we should be winning," said Duke junior guard Abby Waner of Maryland's Laura Harper rejoicing with fans in a chant of, "We beat Duke! We beat Duke!" after the Terps defeated the Blue Devils in College Park for the first time since 1998 Monday.

In many ways, that distorted Duke doctrine that says the Blue Devils will forever be masters of anything basketball related is correct.

Year in and year out, we expect Duke basketball - men or women's - to be among the best in the nation. And although they lost the coach (Gail Goestenkors) and both All-Americans from a team that went undefeated in the regular season, here the Dukies are, once again, near the top of the rankings at No. 10.

But this isn't the same Duke team. It's not even close. And one of the biggest reasons the Blue Devils have struggled throughout a season in which they have already lost four times is the fact that their two biggest returning stars, senior Wanisha Smith and the junior preseason All-American candidate Waner, are simply not playing up to potential.

Both players have struggled through injuries this season, with Waner's coming before the year got underway and Smith's coming midseason. Both are back to being 100 percent healthy now.

Smith has recently shown signs of breaking out of her funk, having scored over 14 points in three of her last four games. Against Maryland, she led the team with 17 points and hit some key three pointers when Duke needed it most.

"It's leadership. It's what happens when you are a senior," Waner said of her teammate. "She's our most experienced player and she's always brought energy whenever she plays and right now she's really channeling that. What we need most out of her is her experienced leadership."

Waner, on the other hand, was supposed to be the superstar. This was supposed to be her year. She was going to be the go-to scorer. The one who could carry Duke on her back if need be. And I saw the goods last season, and they were very good. Waner can absolutely stroke it from long range. So why is she shooting under 35 percent from the field and even worse from deep?

"It's just a mental thing. My shot is fine," Waner admits. "When you are a shooter, your shot is always going to be fine, it's just a matter of getting in the right mental state."

Some people reason that Waner isn't scoring like she did a season ago because opponents are keying on her to be the one player to stop, without Lindsey Harding and Alison Bales on the floor to take their attention. But Waner, spoken like a person who takes credit for their actions and poor play, shrugs that theory off.

"Yeah, I'm just not shooting like I did last year," she said. "My teammates do a good job at getting me the ball. I just got to start playing better, that's really the bottom line."

No matter how Waner shoots on the court, she will continue to be one of, if not the most valuable player on the Duke roster. Her defense and attitude cannot be understated. Because, with the game on the line, that's a pressure situation. And any coach would love to have a player who has a viewpoint on pressure like this:

"There is never too much pressure. If you are playing, you have to be ready to embrace the pressure, no matter what," Waner said with pride. "We've had it in different forms, different ways. Coaching change. Going back to losing in the Final Four my freshman year.

"There is always going to be pressure, it all depends on how you handle it. The better players are able to rise above and right now I just need to find my niche."

Only three games into a long ACC season, Duke hopes Waner can find that niche and rise above soon, because without the Player of the Year-type performances she pulled on multiple occasions last year, the Blue Devils probably wont reach the 30-win plateau for the first time since 1999.

In fact, Duke's four losses in only January match the most losses they have had in any year - except 2004-05 when they went 31-5 - since the 1999-00 season. So, it was unrealistic to believe that in coach Joanne P. McCallie's first season, the Blue Devils would have the same type of success.

But then again, this is Duke. And they should be winning.

Posted by Jeff Lippman at 09:49 AM on January 16, 2008
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