Commentary

Chelsea Gray leads Duke to Sweet 16

Guard puts on nearly flawless performance as Blue Devils advance

Originally Published: March 20, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Duke guard Shay Selby backpedaled down the court, arms raised in mock consternation, but the grin directed at teammate Chelsea Gray was a dead giveaway as to her true feelings. Gray had just missed the finish on an alley-oop attempt, costing Selby an assist and adding an offensive rebound to her own account on the putback.

All Gray could offer by way of apology was a slightly sheepish smile as she made her way to the defensive end, a quarterback who dropped the touchdown pass on a halfback option.

At least she has something to work on. Gray spent the rest of the night showing why her coach calls her the most extraordinary passer in the college game.

[+] EnlargeChelsea Gray
Jim Brown/US PresswireChelsea Gray and Duke turned it up a notch for Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym.

Far from the final seconds of a blowout, more than three minutes remained in the first half when the scene played out between Gray and Selby, but the revelry was hardly premature. Gray's basket, sans assist, put the Blue Devils ahead by 24 points and placed a light-hearted exclamation point on an evening that turned from competition to victory lap in a hurry.

That the Blue Devils sweated out the second half in a 96-80 win against Vanderbilt was only because the temperature in the sweltering gym in Nashville hovered somewhere between those two point totals throughout the game. The final score marked the smallest margin since the middle stages of the first half and failed to in any way reflect the run of play.

Unlike the season before, when Duke struggled to salvage a lucky escape at home in the second round against Marist, this was the ACC champ at its offensive best.

And Gray was the charismatic sophomore point guard running the show.

If that sounds a little like a certain sophomore point guard from South Bend a season ago, it should.

A season after Skylar Diggins led a No. 2 seed to the Final Four with the kind of charisma and command that cemented her place as a college superstar, Gray is eyeing a similar script. The only difference may be that Diggins had to make it to the Final Four to get back to her home state; Gray gets a trip home to California for the Sweet 16. It's the trip to Denver that could follow that she wants.

"Chelsea's our catalyst," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said after Gray totaled 12 assists and facilitated much of the production for a team that shot 66 percent from the field. "I think it's also that some of the passes she makes deflate [defenders]. It's very important to have a point guard that has poise and maturity, and Chelsea's willing to be that."

After a first-round romp against Samford on Sunday, McCallie called Gray's performance in the opener "conservative," a label seemingly applied in much the same way Olympic sprinters rarely push for records in qualifying heats, aware there are more races to be run. The point guard was perfectly productive in that game, totaling 16 points, six assists and four steals, but she let a little more of her inner Usain Bolt out to play on Tuesday night against the Commodores on a court they previously owned.

Gray got the ball inside to Elizabeth Williams for a basket 39 seconds into the game, ensuring Duke's post star of her footing early. She kept the ball moving as Duke found open shooter after open shooter, a role played early and often by Haley Peters en route to a season-high 25 points, and guided her team to 28 points off 18 Vanderbilt turnovers. And though it will be forgotten in the avalanche that followed, she even hit the 3-pointer that erased Vanderbilt's first and only lead early in the game.

Even when Gray really let loose, delivering a no-look behind-the-back pass in transition in the second half, it was as much the necessary play in that moment as the highlight-reel one.

"I loved her eyes -- her eyes were up," McCallie said. "She found her teammates easily, and she made the easiest pass possible. She can be pretty crafty with her passes, but I just thought she played so poised and very mature for a young guard. She's a pretty special guard."

Like Diggins, she's a guard with no shortage of confidence. Also like Notre Dame's All-American, she's a guard who can get her own points when needed -- she earned her nickname of "The Closer" for a reason -- but she's at her best making good players look great. Gray doesn't get 12 assists without Peters hitting 12-of-16 shots for her 25 points or Tricia Liston hitting 10-of-15 shots for 23 points, but the same is true in reverse. But even with all the offensive numbers, it wasn't that aspect of Gray's performance that most impressed the coach on the other side.

"I didn't know she could defend as well as she defended," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "She played both ends of the floor very hard. I was very impressed with not just her offensive skills -- I saw them when I was trying to recruit her for years like everybody else. She's very savvy with the basketball, she can see the floor very well and can pick you apart. Very impressive. But defensively, she has a hand on everything and uses her size and strength and works very hard on the defensive end."

Which makes her the ideal point guard for the Blue Devils. This is the best offensive team McCallie has had at Duke. It may not be 66 percent shooting good when it faces St. John's in the Sweet 16 or potentially Stanford beyond that, but it's not the shooting-challenged group of seasons past. That said, it's no coincidence McCallie talked after the game about the dangers of being "seduced" by offense. She does, and always will, define herself by defense. Lacking the necessary healthy and available bodies to play the kind of pressing defense she would like, and with Williams still a question mark after two solid but short outings, she needs Gray to set the tone on both ends.

"It helps to have a lot of offensive skill, but at the same time, it does start from defense," McCallie said. "Your defense and rebounding, if you focus on that area -- if you really do, truly focus on that area, your offense will take care of itself."

It doesn't hurt to have Gray to tend to it, either. Whether or not she's the next Diggins, she's going to take Duke places. Starting with home to California.

"I do think her passing is more extraordinary than any other guard I've seen in the women's game," McCallie said. "I do think she has an elevated ability to deliver. So I think she's kind of her own person. I know she definitely wants to be that guard to lead a team, but again, these guys are pretty good about just [focusing on] the next game.

"These games are hard. We made it look easier today, but it's a hard game."

Other than a missed alley-oop, Gray made it look simple.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.