Harding makes statement as Duke improves to 28-0

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It was a basketball showdown between No. 1 Duke and No. 6 Maryland that brought a sellout crowd to the Comcast Center on a wintry Sunday night in Maryland, but there were times when Lindsey Harding looked more like Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky gliding around the rink against an opponent that forgot to bring its skates to the game.

Harding decimated the Terrapins' man-to-man defense for the second time this season, scoring 20 first-half points and finishing with a career-high 29 on 12-of-20 shooting as the Blue Devils clinched the ACC regular-season title and moved within a game of a perfect regular season with a 69-57 win.

"If Lindsey Harding isn't player of the year, I'd like to know who is," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said after the game. "She's on a mission. I just want to make sure the NCAA doesn't give her another year of eligibility."

With apologies to Tennessee's Candace Parker, Oklahoma's Courtney Paris and other eminently qualified candidates, Frese wasn't just speaking with an ACC accent. Indicative of Harding's entire season, Sunday night was the kind of performance that should make her the national player of the year.

Duke is the best team in the country for a whole host of reasons, many of which were on display in the background even as Harding took the starring role. But the Blue Devils are closing in on perfection because of their senior point guard.

Harding wasn't Duke's leading scorer when play began on Sunday, trailing Abby Waner by a margin that evaporated when Waner went scoreless for the first time this season. But it was never the quantity of her points that mattered in the big picture. In Duke's four biggest games so far this season, against Tennessee, North Carolina and Maryland twice, Harding is averaging 23.5 points.

In her team's toughest games -- three of which came on the road -- she's averaging nine points better than her season average.

"I think once again Lindsey showed she's one of the best, if not the best, players in the country," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "She does whatever it is that we need for her to do to be successful. Tonight, in the first half in particular, we needed her to score and she did a great job."

Parker has hardly been a slouch under the bright lights, averaging 22.7 in Tennessee's six biggest games (Stanford, Duke, Connecticut, North Carolina and Georgia twice) compared to 20.0 on the season, but the inescapable truth is that despite her best efforts, Tennessee also lost two of those games.

Against Maryland, Harding wasted little time putting Duke in position to win.

Senior Night breeds emotion for any home team, all the more with a full house roaring its approval from the stands. And when little-used senior Aurelie Noirez, making a rare start, drained a jumper to open the scoring, the Terrapins seemed to have everything working in their favor.

Right up to the point where Harding pulled up for a jumper in transition to get Duke on the board about a minute later. And then stopped on a dime, leaving Maryland senior Shay Doron grasping for air as she hit another jumper. And another. All told, Harding hit her first six shots, driving Doron to the bench early in her final home game. Not that Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, Ashleigh Newman or Kristi Toliver had any more luck with the assignment.

Midway through the first half, Maryland was shooting 58 percent from the floor with only two turnovers against one of the best defensive teams in the country and still trailed 19-16. The same team that overcame Kim Smith, Ivory Latta and Monique Currie in its final three games on the way to a national championship last season simply didn't have an answer for Harding for the second time this season (she netted 28 points in Duke's 81-62 win over Maryland on Jan. 13).

"They played her for penetration, because she did a great job the last time we played of getting to the basket," Goestenkors said. "They were sagging off a little bit, she hit two 3s. Then they had to come out and defend her, and she had her little pull-up jumper. They had Crystal Langhorne sitting in the lane waiting for her, so she knew the 15-foot shot was there. Her game has expanded so much now that she'll take you all the way to the basket, she's got the 15-foot pull-up or the 3."

Harding is at her most mesmerizing in leaving a defender like Wiley-Gatewood flat-footed with a crossover dribble or ducking around the long arms of Langhorne on an Iverson-esque foray in the lane, but her outside touch is the final piece of the puzzle. Unlike early in her career, defenders must play tight on the perimeter against a player universally hailed as one of the quickest in college basketball.

In her first two seasons at Duke, Harding hit a total of eight 3-pointers despite playing regular minutes. After sitting out the 2004-05 season for an undisclosed violation of team rules, she boosted that to 23 3-pointers as a complementary offensive player (she was also the ACC defensive player of the year) alongside Currie and Mistie Williams on last season's Final Four team. And with seemingly a minimum of seven or eight games remaining this season, she's within four of breaking that career high.

As much as her on-court skills have improved, Harding has grown just as much as a leader. She talked about being an on-court leader as a freshman in the sense of being responsible for making sure Alana Beard and Iciss Tillis got their shots, but time has shifted that role from distributor to manager. It's a responsibility that comes with an awareness of the ticking clock.

"Through my years of experience, I had a lot of 'what ifs,' like I should have done this or I should have done that," said Harding, who is averaging 14.4 points on the season to Waner's 13.8. "This year my whole mentality is I want to leave it all on the floor. I don't want to have any regrets."

Harding's growth process sets her apart in some ways from former greats such as Beard or Currie. Harding arrived not so much with the expectation of being the offensive star but instead of being the point guard who got those players the ball. And so even now that she is unquestionably the go-to player on offense when the team needs a basket, she retains a point guard's mind-set.

Harding's first-half performance on Sunday showed off her individual skills, but her second-half adjustments demonstrated why this Duke team is different from past Duke teams that entered the NCAA Tournament as No. 1 seeds with lofty expectations.

She is a go-to player who is all too happy to go to her teammates.

"They started defending me differently," Harding said of Maryland on Sunday. "Either face guarding me or putting a lot of pressure on me. And every time I drove, I felt like people collapsed on me. So I thought someone else has to be open, and I need to get Ali [Bales] involved, I need to get my posts involved."

Bales finished with 12 points and sophomore Carrem Gay finished with 14 points. Whether taking passes directly from Harding or cleaning up on the offensive glass when Maryland collapsed on penetration, they remained active instead of passively waiting for Harding's next trick.

"We told Remy [Gay] and Joy Cheek that the high-post shot was open for them and they needed to be aggressive," Goestenkors said. "And this is the most aggressive I've seen Remy, maybe all season against a great team. And that was huge for us, because once Remy started hitting some 15-foot shots, Langhorne had to come out and defend her. … Once it was one-on-one in the post, then Ali was able to go to work a little more."

Candace Parker might be the most talented player in the country. Candice Wiggins might be the best all-around player. Courtney Paris might be the most dominating player.

But Lindsey Harding is the only one who might just be perfect.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.