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No. 3 Duke keeps finding ways to escape defeat

Duke is the only unbeaten team in Division I women's basketball, though the third-ranked Blue Devils probably should have a few losses by now.

They've been down 20 in the second half on a rival's court, and trailed nationally ranked teams in the closing moments at home. They've watched a top-five opponent fling up a potential game-winning layup at the buzzer.

Yet Duke (19-0, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) continues to find ways to escape defeat.

Still, the Blue Devils aren't getting caught up with what they've already done, insisting that there's still so much more to accomplish.

"Our goal this season is not to be undefeated. It's to win the national championship," center Krystal Thomas said Tuesday. "We can be 0-20 if there's any way to get to a national championship, or 20-0, but all that matters is that we get there. Anything less, you know, we've underachieved with our capabilities."

The Blue Devils can make it to 20-0 for the fourth time in school history, while extending the best start of Joanne P. McCallie's lengthy coaching career, with a win Wednesday against struggling Clemson.

After that comes a visit to No. 2 Connecticut that will provide the toughest test yet for a Duke team that seems to find its best when it's about to be beaten.

"I love the fight. I love the character," McCallie said. "We've become an 'Anytime, anyplace, anywhere' team. That's very, very important. We motivate by ourselves. We're trying to impress ourselves, which is a good thing if you're impressing yourself first. You can't be playing the game for others. You've got to be wanting this team to be special."

The Blue Devils are on the verge of starting with 20 wins for the first time since 2006-07, when Gail Goestenkors' final Duke team opened 30-0 and spent much of the season No. 1 before becoming a victim of early upsets in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments. The current seniors were seniors in high school then, hoping to keep that momentum rolling after Goestenkors left for Texas and McCallie came from Michigan State to replace her.

"It's cool ... but I don't really think you've accomplished anything until postseason," said senior guard Jasmine Thomas, the ACC's preseason player of the year. "To put things into perspective, that's something that's good when you're looking back at the record books, but when you're in the moment, you're not really focused on it."

Of course, Duke's impressive start might not have happened at all, had the ball bounced a few different ways in a few games.

Jasmine Thomas hit an acrobatic go-ahead jumper in the final minute of the win over then-No. 7 Texas A&M, keyed the late run that carried Duke past then-No. 10 Kentucky and scored seven points in the final 2 minutes to beat then-No. 14 Maryland.

In between came her most impressive individual performance. She hit the go-ahead free throw with 2.5 seconds left against then-No. 4 Xavier, then blocked the Musketeers' game-winning breakaway layup at the buzzer — a feat McCallie called "one of the best plays I've ever seen."

"Individuals on this team, first of all, their will to win — no one likes to lose on this team, and that's just something that is burning through this program, not wanting to lose," Jasmine Thomas said. "Something that's burning even more than that is wanting to win well. We're by no means satisfied with just a win. We're not proud of how we won those games, but there is something you have to take by being able to win, no matter what the situation is."

Everybody seemed to play a part Sunday in the Blue Devils' most recent escape. They trailed North Carolina State by 20 less than a minute into the second half before their full-court pressure defense sparked the rally that stunned the Wolfpack 65-64 in the program's best comeback win in seven years.

"If you look at our leadership ... they've been through so much," McCallie said. "There's a familiarity that's very wide, and I think we just have so much confidence in our ability to make good decisions. I love our last 4 minutes, our last 3 minutes — I love a lot of those, but it's trying to get the whole game. It's trying to be a little bit greedy. It's important to be greedy in this game, in the way you want to put out your best and you want to play your hardest."