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Even tougher test awaits Duke

DURHAM, N.C. -- The Duke women's basketball team was staring at the abyss. Which is pretty much what an NCAA tournament first-round loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium would have felt like for the Blue Devils: a bottomless gulf.

Fortunately for Duke, though, Rebecca Greenwell was there to fill up the bucket.

"Kudos to her," Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said of the redshirt freshman's 20 points, six of which came on 3-pointers. "I mean, she killed us. That's the game: It's her."

Greenwell and the Blue Devils survived No. 13 seed Albany 54-52 in a heart-pounding opener that could have been a historic loss for Duke. The No. 4 seed Blue Devils had won all 21 of their previous NCAA first-round games.

Instead, they live to play again -- on Sunday they'll face Mississippi State (ESPN2/WatchESPN, noon ET), which beat Tulane 57-47 -- and the Great Danes go home believing they, for the most part, outplayed the perennial ACC power.

And they're right, they did. But that wasn't enough to secure what would have been one of the most talked about upsets of the women's tournament.

Albany is a chaos-creating, pressing pest of a team, and Abrahamson-Henderson stressed that is always the case no matter who the Great Danes are playing. But the fact that Duke is challenged at point guard because of injuries and transfers made the Blue Devils even more susceptible to Albany's style.

Duke had 27 turnovers against the America East champion Great Danes. Which makes you wonder: How will the Blue Devils deal with another pack of dogs, these of the SEC pedigree, on Sunday?

We can predict this much: It likely will be a low-scoring affair. Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie and her counterpart at Mississippi State, Vic Schaefer, are both known for defense.

And as they prepare to play for a spot in the Sweet 16 in Spokane, Washington, it's interesting to look at where both programs are now in the grand scheme of women's basketball.

Duke is making its 21st consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, and the Blue Devils generally are just expected to make it to the second weekend. They don't always -- like last year's 74-65 second-round loss to DePaul -- but it's the standard Duke is held to.

In contrast (for now), Mississippi State is both just excited to be here and committed to staying around for a while. Schaefer, who as an assistant coach for Gary Blair went to the Final Four in 1998 (Arkansas) and 2011 (Texas A&M), took over in Starkville, Mississippi, for 2012-13. He had more than paid his dues before moving to the head coach's role in a power conference, having started in the coaching business at the high school level 30 years ago.

Mississippi State has gone from 13-17 in Schaefer's first year to being a competitive force in the SEC -- the Bulldogs finished third in the conference at 11-5 this season -- and now aiming for a regional semifinal. Several times this season, including Friday, Schaefer has grinned and said, "Who'da thunk it?"

But that's just a rhetorical question; in truth, Schaefer did think this would happen, so long as he could get his players to believe it, too. Now seniors such as Martha Alwal -- who celebrated her 22nd birthday Friday -- Jerica James and Kendra Grant can say they helped Schaefer carry through with his vision, which became theirs.

"Those three players -- we promised them that if they would stay with us, hang in there and buy in, they'd see this day and be in the NCAA tournament," Schaefer said of the trio that was at Mississippi State before he got there. "I can't tell you how satisfying it is for me as a coach to know we've lived up to our end, and they helped us get here. To see them experience this is really one of the highlights of my career."

Mississippi State made it to the Sweet 16 the last time the school was in the tournament, in 2010, and then subsequently suffered a tough three-point loss to Florida State. That was the high point, NCAA tournament-wise, of former Bulldogs coach Sharon Fanning's 17 seasons at the school.

Meanwhile, McCallie is in her eighth season at Duke, and her albatross has been not getting to a Final Four, which she did while at Michigan State in 2005. Abrahamson-Henderson was an assistant to McCallie in East Lansing, Michigan, from 2000-02, and they remain on friendly terms.

To the degree that McCallie said she actually felt a little bad for Abrahamson-Henderson after Friday's game, knowing how big a deal an NCAA tournament win would have been for Albany, which now is 0-4 in the Big Dance.

However, it would have been just about as big -- but in a very bad way -- for Duke. So the Blue Devils escaped that potential pitfall. But next, they'll face another program just as hungry to make a statement at their expense.