Comeback win a confidence-booster for Duke women's basketball
When the halftime buzzer sounded at Cameron Indoor Stadium Sunday, the entire Duke contingent let out a collective sigh of relief.
North Carolina had the Blue Devils on the ropes. The Tar Heels—boosted by Allisha Gray’s 11 first-half points—had used a 15-6 run in the final five minutes of the first half to seemingly break the game open and seize a 40-29 lead. Duke, by comparison, was struggling to establish its offense with three-time All-American center Elizabeth Williams in foul trouble.
The Blue Devils had trailed at the half in each of their three previous games and went on to lose all three—two of them against unranked opponents. Now, down 11 points to a 16th-ranked North Carolina squad hungry to avenge its earlier 74-67 overtime loss to Duke, the prognosis did not look good.
But with a Tobacco Road sweep and tournament seeding on the line, the Blue Devils came together in the locker room and prepared to finish strong.
“[Going into halftime] we talked and tried to figure out some things…[But] I don’t think anything fancy happened at halftime,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “To be honest, Georgia Tech was on my mind. We crawled all the way back against Georgia Tech and didn’t finish. I thought it was time for us to crawl back and finish. [Finishing] is just what the game is all about. It’s a 40-minute game. You have to play all out.”
Feeding off the emotions of a sold-out crowd on Senior Night, Duke (20-9, 11-5 in the ACC) got off to a quick start out of the break. Less than two minutes into the half, senior forward Amber Henson pulled up from 3-point range and buried a rare triple that brought fans to their feet. On the ensuing Tar Heel possession, the Tampa, Fla., native notched an explosive block, catalyzing a 22-1 Blue Devil run that would give Duke a 54-44 lead with 12:28 left in the contest.
After Henson’s adrenaline-stirring trey, Williams went into attack mode, lending 12 second-half points on 4-of-7 shooting and notching three offensive boards. Despite picking up her third foul with 4:46 left in the game, the Virginia Beach, Va., native remained on the floor and provided an indispensable presence in the paint by wreaking havoc on the Tar Heels’ interior defense.
The attention Williams drew from North Carolina also enabled redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell to finally connect on some open looks. Greenwell entered Sunday’s contest having gone 13-of-41 from the field in her previous three games, but poured in 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting and knocked down three of the team’s four made triples.
The Owensboro, Ky., native’s performance was a key difference-maker for the Blue Devils and helped the team tie a season-high with 52 second-half points en route to a 81-80 thrilling win.
“It’s a great win, a confidence-boosting win,” Greenwell said. “We know how good we can be, and we really tried to focus on that going into halftime. When we came out [of halftime] we showed how well we can play together.”
But although Duke’s offensive improvements were the most noticeable, it won the game with its defense. Greenwell provided two back-to-back steals that led to a lay-up and a set of free throws. The Blue Devils also forced 22 Tar Heel turnovers and outrebounded North Carolina 39-32. Although the Tar Heels made 14 three-pointers—tying a school record for number of 3-pointers made in a game—and scored 12 points on fast-breaks, Duke was able to muster stops in other areas often enough to edge them.
“[We made] some great stops,” McCallie said. “The team showed a lot of fight and resolve and attitude. That’s important down the stretch.”
At the end of 40 minutes, Duke had put together a humongous second-half comeback that virtually erased the memory of the previous three games of lackluster play that had been dragging down the team.
By finishing the game strong—and the regular season—strong, the Blue Devils will likely now benefit in the postseason. With the win, Duke locked up a double-bye and the No. 4 seed in this week's ACC tournament and looks to be back on track for a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament—which would ensure the Blue Devils would host the first two rounds at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Perhaps most importantly, Duke got something that makes March Madness special and makes anything possible in the next month—belief.
“We’re going to use [this win]," McCallie said. “...I think this team knows what they can do. We really want to put together some great 40 minutes. We know what we need to do. I think [today] gives us great energy to move forward."