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Duke ready for Albany, Mississippi State prepares for Tulane in women's NCAA openers

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DURHAM, North Carolina — This was Duke's worst season in a while — and one of the best in Mississippi State history.

The fourth-seeded Blue Devils and fifth-seeded Bulldogs will be heavy favorites to win their NCAA Tournament openers Friday.

Duke (21-10) faces 13th-seeded Albany (24-8) and Mississippi State (26-6) takes on 12th-seeded Tulane (22-10) in the first round of the Spokane Region.

Despite having a lower seed, the Bulldogs actually finished at No. 12 in the final Top 25 poll, four spots higher than Duke.

They set program record for victories, both overall and in Southeastern Conference play (11), while earning the second-best seed in school history.

The Blue Devils are making their 21st straight tournament appearance, but this is their lowest seed since they were a No. 5 seed in 1997.

Unless they win the national title, they'll finish with 11 losses — which they haven't done since '97.

They've had about two weeks to refocus after a season that included two three-game losing streaks and a loss to Notre Dame in an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal.

"That was a rough thing for us," coach Joanne P. McCallie said Thursday. "We had some great lessons learned from that, and we've had some time to take off and time to prepare."

One of the biggest issues — once again — has been injuries.

The Blue Devils lost key post player Oderah Chidom to a season-ending shoulder injury. Past years have been derailed by season-ending injuries to guards Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones.

Factor in the abrupt transfer of freshman guard Sierra Calhoun and the season-ending knee injury suffered by reserve Lynee Belton, and this clearly isn't the same Duke team that started the year.

"We've evolved since then," McCallie said. "The team has been resilient and tough, and people have stepped up."

The same goes for Mississippi State.

Behind freshman forward Victoria Vivians, a 15-point scorer, the Bulldogs finished 11-5 in SEC play and earned their best seed since they were a No. 3 in 2003.

"This season has been very special for us," SEC co-coach of the year Vic Schaefer said. "Obviously, it's a very special team."


Some things to know about the first-round games in Durham:

WILLIAMS' FAREWELL: This marks the final NCAA Tournament for Duke senior Elizabeth Williams, one of the most decorated players in program history. The prolific shot-blocker is 84 points shy of becoming the second player in school history with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. "Knowing 'E' since the seventh grade," teammate Ka'lia Johnson said, "it's good to be playing on her team and not against her."

STANDING TALL: The Blue Devils start three players who stand 6-foot-3 or taller. None of the other three teams here can say that — and the Great Danes don't have anybody taller than 6-2. "We definitely do plan to use our speed to our advantage," said Albany guard Sarah Royals, who is 5-9. "Size doesn't always matter."

REMATCHES: Both first-round games are rematches from last season. Duke beat Albany 81-51 in December 2013 while the Bulldogs knocked the Green Wave out of the WNIT last March.

EXPERIENCED UNDERDOGS: Neither of the two lower-seeded programs is a stranger to the postseason. Albany is making its fourth straight NCAA appearance after winning four America East tournaments in a row. Tulane is in the postseason for the sixth straight year, last appearing in the NCAA Tournament in 2010 but reaching four straight WNITs from 2011-14.

FAMILIAR FACES: Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson was an assistant to McCallie at Maine (1992-94) and Michigan State (200-02). Tulane assistant Beth Dunkenberger was the head coach at Virginia Tech from 2004-11 and Wave coach Lisa Stockton is a Greensboro native who played at Wake Forest in the 1980s.


Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joedyap

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