Practice just wrapped for Duke women’s basketball on a Monday afternoon, and Mercedes Riggs, a 5-7 junior Blue Devils guard, fields a question about Rebecca Greenwell, a sharp-shooting 6-1 redshirt freshman wing leading the team in minutes, points and steals.
“Becca’s great,” Riggs says, her trademark ebullience evident even over the phone.
‘Great’ would be an apt descriptor for Greenwell’s well-versed game (her head coach calls her special), but Riggs digs past that. With Greenwell, you start with the intangibles. The demeanor, the hustle, the insatiable desire to improve. Success, with so many roots embedded beneath it.
Riggs goes with the word humble. “Becca’s one of the hardest-working girls on this team. She’s always in the gym. She stays after practice, she works on off-days,” Riggs says. “Some players are great, and they like to tell people how great they are. But she’s not like that at all. She’s someone who values hard work.”
Greenwell alternates between three perimeter positions for Duke, and spends considerable time running point. Since Riggs arrived on campus as a junior college transfer this summer, Greenwell has been floored by her teammate’s handle, and the myriad drills she does to improve it.
So, she asks Riggs for help. After practice, on off days, doesn’t matter—they’re in the gym getting better. One dribbles, the other pushes and prods in approximation of a defender. Then, two-handed dribbling: bouncing one ball forcefully, the other a pitter-patter like spring rain. They haven’t yet cycled through cones together, says Riggs, before noting that Greenwell frequently solicits coaches to run her through them.
Since July, two of Duke’s best ballhandlers have transferred. First Alexis Jones, then Sierra Calhoun. The Blue Devils are effectively down to three guards, which means Greenwell and Riggs must take on even greater roles. “That puts a lot of pressure on us,” says Greenwell, “but I think we’ve done a good job.”
“Teams will guard [Becca] tight, because she’s a great scorer, but she’s approaching it the right way,” says Riggs. “Even though she’s had so many double-doubles (four) and points (14.8 per through 17 games) this season, she won’t settle.”
Greenwell never understood players who threw up three goggles or swaggered back after putting the ball through the hoop. She patterned her approach after those who, upon scoring, simply ran back on defense. “Hard-working people who get the job done. I think that’s always something I’ve tried to create with my own game,” Greenwell says.
Greenwell received a note from Pat Summitt the summer before sixth grade. Within a year, North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell had offered a scholarship. She represented Team USA at the U16 and U17 levels, and was a McDonald’s All-American.
A throwback, devoid of ego. Greenwell would rather talk about what she can do better. For instance, she feels she’s committed too many turnovers of late. Though she does feel more comfortable initiating certain sets, “I don’t see myself as a good point guard at all,” Greenwell says. “I’m just trying my best. I need all the help I can get.”
Hence, the drill sessions with Riggs.
Riggs, the kid from Utah who never in her wildest dreams believed she might one day suit up for showdowns on Coach K Court. Who didn’t play AAU. Who, as a high school senior, was rated a ’40’ by ESPN’s far-sighted recruiting service. Too bad you can’t chart intangibles. Riggs has gone on to become an indispensable component of one of the country’s best teams.
“Mercedes and Becca are fighters,” says Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie. “They have a desire to compete and represent. It doesn’t matter that Becca was a star in high school, and Mercedes came with a different level of recognition. Their hearts are the same.”
McCallie has referenced sports as a metaphor for life, and that theme applies quite resoundingly to this team, this season. When faced with adversity, one must adapt. In this case, a group—and Duke, a very young group at that, is learning to do just that. McCallie sees resiliency, and a constant search for consistency.
Senior center Elizabeth Williams dropped 26 and 20 against Oklahoma in December, but Greenwell says you’d never know it from watching her work. The same goes for 6-5 frosh wünderkind Azurá Stevens.
“It definitely sets this team apart,” says Greenwell, of ego not entering into the equation. “Everyone has that sense of humbleness, and it makes it special. On other teams, you might have conflict, but we all have one goal. We just want to win.”
Growing up in Owensboro, KY, Greenwell was always the tallest player on the court. She remembers games where she might score 20 points, all off layups.
The sort of early success that can lead to stagnation. Peers catch up in height, eventually surpass in skill. But Greenwell always sought to stay ahead of the curve; she expanded her skill set fastidiously. She went to every camp she could. Worked, worked, worked.
There were endless shooting and skill sessions in the yard at home with her older sister, Rachel. “If we weren’t in school or doing chores for mom, we were outside playing,” says Rachel, who played at Bellarmine University. “Early morning or 11 at night, didn’t matter. We just loved it, and I know it helped us develop.”
Greenwell didn’t become known for her shooting range until high school, when she starred for Owensboro Catholic and Tennessee Flight, a premier AAU team. She’d moved from the post to the wing, and pyrotechnics were soon seen, aided by that hair-trigger release. As a senior at Owensboro Catholic, Greenwell hit 17 threes in a game, a national record. She finished her career as one of the most prolific prep players in recent memory.
Riggs starred at Timpanogos (UT) High, but following her senior season, she hadn’t received the offers she’d hoped for. So she enrolled at Salt Lake Community College, and set about expanding her game.
Betsy Spedecker, SLCC’s head coach, hails Riggs as the junior college dream, epitomized. Didn’t get the looks she’d hoped for out of high school. Put her head down and worked and worked and worked ’til her dream came true.
Of the patented intensity and resolve, seen so thrillingly in blue and black this season, Riggs can’t remember not having it. And yet, at times growing up, it came pouring out in untoward ways. In fifth grade, she began Taekwando. Suddenly, she’d found a way to channel all that excess energy. She found the process transformed her approach in basketball, academics and life.
Specketer remembers coming to the gym during summers, knowing Riggs would be there each day hoisting jumpers, honing her handle. “She’s a 100-percenter,” Specketer says. “Every single minute of every day. Her level of commitment is so high that people naturally want to follow her. She elevates your team’s play because she refuses to settle for anything less than the absolute best. People will play hard for that.”
Duke’s coaching staff had been in contact with Spedecker for several months, but Riggs didn’t learn of the interest until the national junior college tournament wrapped last March. Following Jones’s injury last February, McCallie knew it would be imperative to recruit a guard. Late signees are tricky, especially for a university with such stringent academic specifications, but Riggs quickly emerged as the perfect fit. “We were so fortunate to be able to recruit her,” says McCallie. “She had great grades, she interviewed well. We were thrilled she’d leave Utah. It’s really worked out for us.”
For Riggs, Duke ticked all the boxes. Top-10 basketball program, the opportunity to expand her game under superb direction. A degree that packs serious weight in the working world. Riggs aspires to be a sports psychologist, focusing upon college athletes. She wants to work toward a master’s and a PhD.
“In talking with Duke’s coaches, they described exactly what they were looking for, and it fit Mercedes perfectly,” Specketer says. “She’s the type of person that will look a challenge right in the eye.”
In summer 2013, Greenwell underwent surgery to repair meniscus damage in her right knee. It was her third procedure on that knee in two years. That first offseason on Duke’s campus, while her new teammates participated in grueling max-out tests, the most exertion Greenwell was allowed were pushups. She recuperated and convalesced until January, when she was cleared to resume practice. She redshirted the 2013-14 season.
Greenwell had first torn her anterior cruciate ligament before her junior year of high school. She’d thrown herself into rehab, working fastidiously so she could return at the six-month minimum recommended for recovery. On that very day, Greenwell was in a car with Rachel, heading for pick-up ball at Bellarmine. As a high school senior, her knee was never quite right. So, when she arrived in Durham, Duke doctors performed surgery, and she began once more the climb back.
“The biggest part of rehab is mental,” says Rachel, who suffered an ACL tear as a high school senior. She’d played as a true freshman at Bellarmine, but she felt off-key. She regretted not taking a redshirt to get right. “So I stayed on Becca about her knee,” Rachel says. “It took me forever to get back, so I stayed on her to get over that hump, where you’ve got to overcome it. One day, it just clicks. But it just takes time.”
Greenwell focused her energy into anything positive. She watched and she learned from a veteran bunch of high-performers. When she was cleared to practice, McCallie raved about her performance. This summer, Greenwell kicked that momentum into overdrive. The 1.5-mile timed test, standard for most collegiate teams? She wanted the program record of nine minutes. “It meant a lot to me,” Greenwell says. “I made it a personal goal.”
During a test run, Greenwell clocked in at 8 minutes, 46 seconds. On the official day, she crossed the line at 8:59 — and that was with a slow start. “At that point, I knew I was healthy,” she says.
This season’s Duke team could point to its youth, or the fact that players are filtering into new roles. Williams, the senior post, is the only returning starter from last season. But McCallie demands nothing less than excellence. And she knows this team is capable of so much. So it went during the post-game press conference following a disheartening 83-52 defeat to UConn in late December. McCallie was furious about the lack of fight her team had shown. But there was no question they would learn from the experience.
“This team is learning to push each other,” McCallie says, “to be passionate about defense and rebounding, to learn from losses and from wins. It’s about the way you play, the process you undertake. We’re proud of that.”
To wit: after a disappointing loss at Florida State on January 11, Duke responded four days later with a 65-40 dismantling of Virginia Tech at home. Greenwell scored 21 points, and added a block and a steal. Riggs dropped 5 dimes and 0 turnovers.
Riggs might have put it best in a recent tweet: “Success is where passion meets dedication.” Each of her attributes: skill, work ethic, coachability and maturity, melding into that equation. McCallie has paid her an ultimate compliment: she’s the only player she’s ever had to turn down, in terms of energy level.
“My role for this team is not to score 20 point or get 10 rebounds,” Riggs says. “I have to bring energy and defensive poise and leadership and get our team into offense and be consistent. That’s been my mindset from the beginning of preseason. Doing the little things that other players aren’t necessarily doing.”
When Riggs decided to attend Duke, Specketer let out a Hell Yes. This was Riggs’s chance to show she belonged on the national stage, and Specketer knew she’d seize it. “How could anyone ever doubt this girl? That word isn’t part of her vocabulary,” Specketer says. “It’s not one she’ll ever use.”
There’s another player dead-set upon banishing doubt. Each time Greenwell blows past her defender or steps back for a three, she moves a bit further from those difficult days of rehab. The knee feels good. She’s starting to cook again from deep. But, as is always the case when one of her shots has sunk, she puts her head down and sprints back on D. This has never been about Becca.
“That’s one of the big things that sticks out about her,” Rachel says of little sis. “Becca is not a selfish person. She gives credit where it’s due. She knows she wouldn’t be where she is on her own.”