Big second-half run powers Duke women's basketball past North Carolina
With seeding in the ACC tournament and possibly the right to host the first weekend of the NCAA tournament on the line, the Tobacco Road rivals came down to the wire once again Sunday.
No. 16 Duke used a big second half to avoid a four-game losing streak and defeat No. 15 North Carolina 81-80 Sunday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. After going to overtime in Chapel Hill just a month ago, the Blue Devils were able to win this one in regulation behind a 34-8 run that changed the momentum of the game.
“The second half was a great reflection of what we’re capable of doing,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I just really liked our whole second half and our team showed great composure because we were down 11 at that point. They were very focused and very clear.”
Tar Heel star sophomore Allisha Gray took the ball to the basket with North Carolina down 79-77 and appeared to have an open layup to tie the game. But senior Elizabeth Williams was able to rotate in time to affect Gray’s layup, which fell short and allowed Duke to come up with the huge victory.
“We had some great stops in some tough situations,” McCallie said. “Balls bounce some funny ways, especially when long shots are going up. There was a lot of fight and resolve and attitude and that’s really important down the stretch.”
With senior and fan favorite Jenna Frush getting the start on Senior Day, the Blue Devils (20-9, 11-5 in the ACC) looked to take advantage of the energy in the building early. But the Tar Heels came out of the gate ready to play and took a 19-13 lead in the first eight minutes of the game behind fluid ball movement that allowed shooters to get open looks against Duke’s zone defense.
North Carolina’s hot shooting in the first half would continue as the Tar Heels (23-7, 10-6) connected on 7-of-11 shots from deep to take a 40-29 halftime lead.
“It’s tough because they can spread you out and they have so many guards that can handle the ball,” McCallie said.
On offense, the Blue Devils struggled to find any sort of rhythm and committed 14 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes. With key contributors Williams, Kendall Cooper and Ka’lia Johnson all forced to the bench with two fouls, Duke was forced to run its offense through Azura Stevens.
The freshman responded with 12 points on 6-of-12 shooting to go along with six rebounds in the first half, but the Blue Devils headed into halftime trailing for the fourth consecutive contest and looking for a much-needed energy boost to avoid their fourth loss in a row.
That is when Duke’s seniors provided a much-needed lift.
Playing what might be their last game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, seniors Johnson, Williams and Amber Henson fueled a 15-3 run out of the locker room that helped the Blue Devils regain the lead with 16:12 left in the game. Henson keyed the run with a 3-pointer as the shot clock wound down that was followed by a three-point play in the paint. On the very next possession, Williams converted a three-point play of her own that ignited the sellout crowd.
“Just to be able to step up in that time and look for my teammates and be aggressive to shoot the ball to get things going and loosen it up a little bit was important for that time of game,” Henson said.
Led by Johnson’s tenacious defense, the Blue Devil run would not end there.
Duke followed its burst to start the half with a 19-5 run punctuated by 12 points by redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell during an eight-minute span. With the Blue Devil offense finally starting to play through its post players, Duke got into the bonus with much of the second half to go and lived at the free throw line for the remainder of the game.
“The awesome crowd we had today really fueled my defense,” Greenwell said. “That was the biggest crowd we had all year and it really just fueled us on the court the entire game. I wish we had some more home games to play.”
North Carolina’s Brittany Rountree and Jessica Washington would ensure that the Tar Heels didn’t go down without a fight.
The duo combined for 13 consecutive points for North Carolina that allowed the Tar Heels to cut the lead to 68-61 with 6:33 remaining. With North Carolina answering Duke’s dominance in the post with hot shooting from beyond the arc, the Tar Heels were able to cut the lead to four with 2:16 to play.
After trading baskets down the stretch, another North Carolina 3-pointer and a missed free throw by Stevens left the door open for a late comeback for the Tar Heels. But Williams’ defensive rotation affected Gray’s layup attempt, and the Blue Devils would ice the game from the line to secure the crucial victory.
Duke entered the game in sixth place in the ACC standings but leapfrogged the Tar Heels and No. 25 Syracuse to earn the fourth and final double-bye in next week’s ACC tournament. The Blue Devils will play Friday at 11 a.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum, N.C., hoping a deep run in the conference tournament will be enough to land them a slot as a host for the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.