After tough summer, Waner steps into spotlight at Duke

DURHAM, N.C. -- Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.

With the clock ticking down on a recent blowout win against Old Dominion, Duke reserve Emily Waner, who moments before had brought the bench to its feet with a behind-the-back pass, fired a no-look pass that went directly to coach Gail Goestenkors on the sideline. A look of anger flashed across the coach's face as she held the ball, and the relaxed buzz of victory in Cameron Indoor Stadium yielded to silent anticipation of her reaction to the careless turnover.

Then Goestenkors, with a bemused smile and a shake of her head, turned and fired a two-hand chest pass to Abby Waner, Emily's sister who was seated near the end of the bench. It was an acknowledgment of a play in an earlier game, when Emily mistook Abby's sideline encouragement as a call for the ball and threw another pass to the bench, Goestenkors' sarcastic reenactment left the bench rolling and the crowd free to breathe easy.

In addition to letting Emily off the hook for her showboating, the moment seemed to symbolize the connection between the coach and Abby, two similar personalities who spent a sometimes agonizing summer trying to recover from being on the wrong side of the second-biggest comeback in the history of the women's championship game.

"I think that she's kind of laughing a little more this year, goofing around with us a little more," Abby said of her coach this season. "I don't know, I just notice that she cracks more jokes in practices. Don't get me wrong, she's still the first one to let us know when we do something wrong.

"But I think the last game really affected her, as well. Me and her talked about it so much, that we're very similar in the way we let that championship game get inside of us. And I think that she's also been working on letting it go and moving on to this year and this team. She's still just as intense, just as competitive and just as passionate as she was last year."

The "last game" was the NCAA title game against Maryland at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston last April, when Duke surrendered a 13-point lead before eventually losing in overtime. For a program and a coach so long under the microscope for not winning a championship, it was doubly painful to have one seemingly within grasp suddenly wrenched away.

"I told everybody we just needed to get away and just revitalize, rejuvenate and just begin again," Goestenkors said of the weeks after the game. "I think you really need to close the door on the past, and work through it and then move on."

Nobody struggled with that edict more than Abby Waner, who emerged as a star-in-waiting in the first five games of the NCAA Tournament but suffered through an off night against Maryland in which she hit just one shot and committed three turnovers.

"I was pretty beat up. I think everybody is after the tournament, so physically my body needed it," Waner said. "But mentally, I was ready to be in the gym the next day, because it was one of the hardest things I've ever had to go through with basketball. And I did not want that feeling to just sit. I wanted to be able to start working and start working toward this year and becoming better and having another shot at the national championship."

But coach's orders were coach's orders, and so for the first time in more than a year (she had played for Goestenkors on a youth national team before arriving for her freshman year), Waner took time off from basketball. A friend who plays for Minnesota, Emily Fox, visited Durham and provided distraction for a couple of weeks, and physical conditioning provided a constant outlet. Hardly out of shape last season, she returned to campus this year having lost a reported 15 pounds and with a physique that Goestenkors described with words like "cut."

As a result, Waner's already aggressive instincts on defense are now supported by a body that can make the most of them. Through Duke's first six games, in which no opponent shot better than 30 percent from the field, Waner piled up a staggering 25 steals.

"She's a much better defensive player than she was last season, no question," Goestenkors said. "And her steals are because she's so aggressive. She's always been aggressive, but now she's a smarter defensive player. So she knows when she can go for the steals. She used to take herself out of plays going for steals; she'd be just a half-second late. This year, she's not a half-second late, she's a little bit quicker."

And as Waner noted, that defense translates to offense (she leads the Blue Devils at 15.2 points per game), allowing her to show off the open-court finishing skills that complement her noted long-range touch.

Time has even allowed Waner to put the loss to Maryland in perspective as part of an overall breakthrough performance for her and a memorable run for the team.

"I think the positives actually outweigh the negatives," Waner said. "It's every basketball player's dream to be playing in the national championship game. Even playing in the Final Four alone was just an unbelievable experience. And now that I've been apart from it for a little while, I appreciated more of what I went through instead of being discouraged that we lost.

"… And being on the court in those kind of situations, I think helped with my awareness on the court with the girls I was playing with. And I think it helped Coach G and I have a better relationship as well."

While it's easy to say all the right things when things go right, the adversity of playing on, and eventually losing on the biggest stage forced the coach and the young star to accelerate a process of getting to know each other that often takes years.

"I think we learned to trust each other more," Waner explained. "I don't know, I just think we communicated a lot more toward the end of the year and this summer."

Gradually becoming a team leader in spite of her youth, Waner summed up the mood of a team trying to have fun precisely because it knows exactly what the alternative is.

"I need to move on from the game, but I will never forget the game."

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