After Duke's win last Thursday over Georgia Tech, Yellow Jacket head coach MaChelle Joseph had high words of praise for Blue Devil guard Monique Currie.
"Alana Beard and Iciss Tillis are special, but Monique Currie is the x-factor," Joseph said. "She's tough, she's aggressive, and she's hard nosed. She never gets high and she never gets low; she just attacks. I think that she makes Duke a much tougher team, defensively and offensively."
High words of praise for a player on a team filled with high school All Americans, but Currie more than lived up to the billing on Sunday, playing a key role in No. 1 Duke's 79-57 victory over archrival North Carolina.
The Washington, D.C. native scored 14 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out five assists while playing a game-high, hard-nosed 38 minutes.
"Monique was a warrior for us," Duke head coach Gail Goestenkors said. "She was so physically tough in this game. She hit big shots for us, but more importantly, I think, she got the big rebounds for us because it was a battle inside for everything."
Currie was especially dominant in the opening half, when she scored all of her points. Although she missed her first shot from the field, she went on to hit 6-of-9 attempts and was 2-for-2 from the free-throw line.
Many of the redshirt sophomore's points came during momentum-building runs, including Duke's final two buckets of the half.
After North Carolina closed the Blue Devils' lead to 34-27 with just over a minute remaining, Currie came down with an offensive rebound off Jessica Foley's missed three-point attempt. She muscled her way in for a layup to put Duke up by nine points, and then she sent her team into the lockerroom with a double-digit advantage when she made a smooth move inside for her second basket in a row.
"I think I had a lot of easy baskets and I was going to the lane, taking open shots," Currie said. "They were switching a lot, so sometimes I ended up with smaller players on me, so I just wanted to take advantage of that when I could."
Currie may have had a size advantage on the Tar Heel defenders, but that was largely because her 6-foot frame and guard-like quickness make her a tough matchup for any opponent, large or small.
Last year during Duke's three victories over North Carolina, Currie was forced to watch from the bench as she recovered from an ACL tear suffered during the preseason. The Blue Devils missed the double-digit scoring that she provided during her stellar freshman campaign in 2001-2002, but perhaps most importantly they were missing an element of sheer toughness that Currie brings every time she steps on the court.
Nowhere was that toughness more evident than the middle of the second half yesterday, when Duke held a slight 50-48 edge over the surging Tar Heels.
As Currie was going for a defensive rebound, she got tangled up with several North Carolina players. She passionately ripped at the ball with both hands, causing a tie up and consequently giving the Blue Devils the alternating possession.
That play fired up Currie, her teammates and the crowd, which appreciated the guard's gritty effort, but it also prompted referee Joe Cunningham to talk to Currie as she walked back down the court to the offensive end.
"I think it was a situation when we were all going after the rebound, and sometimes you get tangled up with players," Currie said of the jump ball. "It was a battle down there. They threw five people to the boards, and so did we. So it was a lot of people down there banging and trying to get every rebound."
Currie's 17 points and eight rebounds were a crucial factor in Duke's upset win over then-No. 1 Connecticut on January 3rd, and with a home game against Tennessee looming in less than two weeks and an impending run deep into the NCAA tournament in March, the Blue Devils will continue to rely on her contributions.
"I can't express in words how good it is to have [Currie] back," Beard said. "She is the difference between a Final Four team and a National Championship team."