by Matthew Snyder / @schnides14

When asked about this season, the goals of Duke senior guard Chelsea Gray meld inextricably with those of her team. She wants a conference championship, then a conference tournament championship, and finally, an NCAA tournament title. The Blue Devils achieved the first two of those goals in ‘12-13, but that’s not nearly enough.

This spring, Gray and her four fellow seniors want to cut the nets down in Nashville and bring home the first National Championship in program history.

For Gray, there’s added impetus for this razor-sharp focus. She suffered a season-ending dislocated kneecap last February. Though her production (12.6 points per game, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 3.6 steals) was sufficient for her to be named Co-ACC Player of the Year and earn selections to the All-ACC First-Team and All-ACC Defensive Team, Gray was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Blue Devils bowed out to Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, the fourth consecutive season they’ve lost at that post-season juncture.

Gray rehabbed the knee all summer, and has returned to the court with a vengeance. She’s recreated her all-around assault on the box score while boosting her assists to 7.5 per game against a grueling national schedule. (After defeating Georgia Tech in the ACC opener on Sunday, Duke is 14-1 and ranked third in the country. Its strength of schedule and RPI both rank in the top-five.)

Gray ranks in the top-10 in the country in assists, and her assist-to-turnover ratio is up to 2.4, far above her career average of 1.74. As the season shifts into its latter stages, she’ll continue her quest for the third triple-double of her collegiate career. But most importantly, she’ll seek that tricky championship treble. Chelsea took time to speak with SLAM this past Friday.

SLAM: Your older brother, Javon, got to watch you play at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time last month. The game he saw (an 83-61 loss to UConn on December 17) wasn’t what you’d hoped for, but where did that rank among your basketball experiences?

Chelsea Gray: It was just…the outcome kind of messed up the moment, but I’ll never forget being able to run out and see him in the stands. He’s coming back in a month or so for another game. Seeing him smiling and cheering during warm-ups and during the game was a great feeling.

SLAM: Was Javon involved with your development as a player growing up?

CG: Yeah, he would always rebound for me in the yard. When my parents were at work, he took care of me, and he was always there for support whether it was basketball or homework. I couldn’t ask for anything better.

SLAM: Your family (Gray hails from Manteca, CA) hosted a dinner for the Duke team before your season opener at Cal. Coach Joanne P. McCallie raved about the decorations and spirit on display. What was it like to have your team experience that?

CG: It was amazing. I was able to bring my second family home. My mom was so excited to have everybody, and she went all-out. The food was amazing—my aunt and grandmother helped, and my dad even cooked. To see my family and friends there and to be able to bring my team and enjoy good company, it was a great feeling.

SLAM: This team’s focus and resilience is very impressive. How did you regroup after the UConn loss?

CG: First of all, with five seniors, we’ve been through so many obstacles and adversity that it’s made us closer. There have been surgeries, tough situations and difficult games to get though. We’re special, close-knit, and we know each other very well. We get along off the court. It shows how much we care.

SLAM: With such a veteran group, were you able to assess what went wrong against the Huskies, and decide what you had to improve upon?

CG: We were able to (self-diagnose) what went on. There were a few problems with X’s and O’s, but we had to dig deep. We wanted to put our best foot forward. That starts with defense, and it continues with rebounding — those two things have to be there. You have to take care of intangibles.

SLAM: On top of your impressive offensive production, you have some notable defensive statistics—namely, charges drawn (35 entering this season, fourth-best in Duke history). Have you always taken pride in that?

CG: I’ve been doing that for awhile. A lot in high school, but the understanding started in grade school. I take pride in [drawing charges]. It’s an energy booster.

SLAM: To ask the obvious question, what was it about Duke that made you want to commit out of high school?

CG: Well, when I visited, the staff and the team made it feel like a family-oriented school. I knew I would be able to meet and interact with amazing people, whether it was academics, athletics, boosters, donors or alumni. I was used to California, so branching out and trying new experiences was a key component in the decision. And as for academics, it’s one of the top universities.

SLAM: You’ve spoken about this team’s veteran makeup. Were there certain goals this group wanted to accomplish this season?

CG: We’re always looking for championships. That starts with the conference, goes into ACC tournament, and then there’s the NCAAs. We want to hit every level. We take it one game at a time. The goal is Final Four and a National Championship. That’s always been the main focus.

SLAM: As a freshman, you played on a balky ankle against UConn in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. How tough was it to weather the pain?

CG: I just had to get through it. The training staff did an amazing job of finding ways of getting me comfortable—to play with little to no pain as possible. I leaned on my teammates and focused on the game. You don’t get those games back, so I was playing every game like it was my last.

SLAM: Your fellow senior, Tricia Liston, has been on fire of late (61 points through Duke’s past three games). Are there certain things you look to do as a distributor to get her the ball?

CG: I think we have a very good camaraderie, and we feed off each other. She has certain places she likes the ball. So I read the defense. But I’m always looking to make everyone better.

SLAM: In these four years at Duke, what has been the greatest effect the coaching staff has had on you?

CG: They’re always pushing for you to do better, to strive for excellence. They want what’s best for us, and though it might not seem like it at the time, that’s just coaching. They want what’s best for you both at that moment and for the long run.

SLAM: This team has suffered just one loss while playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. What do you attribute this early success to?

CG: Defending and rebounding, night-in and night-out. That’s what it comes down to. Sometimes we’ll allow more points than we’d like, and we’re like, “Ah, man,” and we’ll strive to do better by watching film and learning. We push each other.

SLAM: You’ve boosted your assists considerably this season. What is the biggest reason for that?

CG: Being able to play off teammates, to run the court and be in the open court and have everyone moving without the ball. That definitely makes my job easier. Also, being able to be comfortable in the offense, be more fluid and knowing where to go. It’s second-nature now, and that gives rhythm to the game.

SLAM: You’ve said you enjoy impersonations. Did that influence your decision to pursue a minor in theater studies at Duke?

CG: Yeah, maybe a little bit. I like to act, and it makes people laugh when I impersonate teammates.

SLAM: Have there been any theater projects you’ve particularly enjoyed?

CG: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve done different scenes or roles, but no, there’s not one that stood out.