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Youth movement powers Duke

DURHAM, N.C. -- You never know how players will react to their first NCAA tournament. For some, it's a knee-knocking, heart-pounding experience that makes it hard for them to even breathe at tipoff. For others, it's just like everything else in their freshman year: a whirlwind of new stuff to get used to, but not necessarily more overwhelming than anything else. And for still others, it's like ... well, ignorance is bliss.

The fact is, freshmen don't always know how they're going to respond to the most pressure-filled games they'll play as college athletes. These past couple of days, though, two rookies helped carry No. 4 seed Duke to the Sweet 16.

Friday against Albany, it was Rebecca Greenwell and her 3-point shooting. Sunday, in a 64-56 victory over No. 5 seed Mississippi State, it was both Greenwell and Azura Stevens.

"The kid that beat us," is how Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer described Stevens, which is the same thing Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said of Greenwell two days earlier.

Friday's game came down to the wire, with Greenwell making a huge 3-pointer to give Duke the lead with 17 seconds left. She finished with 20 points.

Sunday, Duke was able to get some separation by playing very well most of the second half. The Blue Devils didn't slam the door on the Bulldogs quite the way they may have wanted to, as Duke went 12-of-27 from the foul line, 9-of-22 in the second half.

But Greenwell and Stevens, in particular, kept making big plays for Duke. Greenwell, a 6-foot-1 guard out of Owensboro, Kentucky, finished with 17 points, five rebounds and three assists.

Stevens, who is a local kid from Raleigh, North Carolina, had one of her best games in a season in which she's been high on the list among the nation's top freshmen. Stevens had 22 points and 10 rebounds; it was her 10th double-double this season to tie a Duke freshman record. And she now owns the school mark for rebounds in a season for a freshman, with 268.

She was also the only player on either side to play all 40 minutes -- the first time this season that Stevens has done that -- and Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie joked about it afterward.

"I guess I forgot that I never took her out," McCallie said, "but she was absolutely fantastic. If you saw Azura play in December, she couldn't play 20 straight minutes. She would have been just dying to come out."

Sunday, the only people who were dying for Stevens to leave the game were on the Mississippi State side, to get some relief from having to guard her. Stevens -- whose first name is pronounced AZ-er-ray -- acknowledged she was "very nervous" before Friday's NCAA opener, and thinks that showed in her play. However, it's not as if she didn't help Duke a lot in a 54-52 victory in which every point and rebound counted. She had 11 points and nine rebounds against the Great Danes.

While this is their first time playing in the Big Dance, Greenwell and Stevens did have an idea about what it would feel like. A year ago, both were in attendance at Duke's NCAA tournament games here in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Greenwell was a redshirt freshman who sat out last season with a knee injury.

Stevens was finishing her senior year at nearby Cary High School and already had committed to Duke. As she watched the 2014 NCAA games, she thought about how it would be for her in March 2015.

"Yeah, my parents and I would joke about it: 'Next year, you're going to be out there,'" Stevens said. "And now, it's, 'Here you are.' Back then, I was thinking of different things I needed to work on in my game, and strength was a big thing. And just getting the right mindset for college."

Stevens is 6-foot-4 with a very long wingspan and the ability to draw defenders out to the perimeter. Her older sister, Da'Shena, played for St. John's, so Azura had a realistic idea about the demands of college basketball.

"I think it's about just persevering and being able to plow through," Stevens said. "I've had terrible games and great games. One big thing I think I've grown in is IQ in the game. I've had to think about different ways to set up people and to score myself."

Stevens came into Sunday's game averaging 14.0 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 51.3 percent from the field. Against Mississippi State, she made 9 of 13 shots (69.2 percent).

Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer's nickname is the "Minister of Defense" for his specialty during his days as an assistant coach. Usually, he can find ways to guard players who pose difficult matchup problems. But there wasn't much the Bulldogs could do to stop Stevens on Sunday.

Duke senior center Elizabeth Williams, who had 12 points and nine rebounds Sunday, was the anchor of the defense against Mississippi State. This marks Duke's 16th trip to at least the Sweet 16, and this helps counter the bitter taste Williams had last year, when Duke was upset by DePaul in the NCAA second round on its home court. Williams was very glad to have "kids" like Stevens and Greenwell alongside her -- instead of being spectators -- to lead Duke to the Spokane Regional semifinals.

"They've been great," Williams said. "Azura inside was really tough today, and Becca was consistent, especially in the second half. It's really nice when the freshmen can step up and not feel a lot of pressure."

Or, even if they do feel it, not let it stop them.