GREENSBORO, N.C. — Jasmine Thomas and the rest of the Blue Devils had witnessed their second half lead disappear—and now trailed by a point to a surging North Carolina squad with 9:28 remaining. With the ACC Championship in the balance, the trophy would go to the team that could play with poise in the final minutes.
Duke was that team.
Senior Krystal Thomas scored four quick points to retake the lead, and the Blue Devils ran away from the Tar Heels, ending the game on a 28-12 run to snatch Duke’s second straight ACC Tournament Championship—and seventh overall—besting North Carolina 81-66.
“I’m very, very proud of our team, our seniors and the leadership exhibited out there throughout this tournament,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said.
Each team came out firing in the first half, and hot shooting negated the defensive efforts of both Duke and North Carolina. Forward Jessica Breland, who finished the game with 27 points, made a number of contested jump shots over tight coverage by Allison Vernerey, and was nearly unstoppable the entire game.
The Blue Devils suffered an injury scare midway through the first half, when Karima Christmas was undercut while fighting for an offensive rebound and crashed to the floor, landing hard on her right side. Christmas remained motionless on the court for a few moments before retreating to the bench, where she received treatment from team doctors. She would return just minutes later, however, wearing a protective sleeve on her right arm for support.
“Karima was really courageous to come back like she did. She got hit really hard and didn’t feel very good. She made the most of her time out there and was attacking always,” McCallie said.
Despite the obvious pain, Christmas persevered and had a huge effect on the game. Her four offensive rebounds extended Duke’s possessions, and often resulted in points on the board.
Jasmine Thomas drilled a long 3-pointer in the waning seconds of the first half, and Vernerey finished from close range to close the period on a 5-0 run and give Duke a 37-32 lead heading into the second period. Vernerey was a consistent source of production for the Blue Devils all weekend, and finished the game with 10 points off just seven shots.
With both offenses trumping the opposing defense, the game remained close until Duke’s decisive run in the second half. While Jasmine Thomas was the closer, it was the playmaking abilities of freshmen Chelsea Gray and Chloe Wells that jumpstarted the Blue Devil offense. Wells’s dish to Krystal Thomas, just a play after Gray found Thomas in the post, gave the senior another easy finish in the paint to give Duke a 57-54 lead.
The Blue Devils shot the lights out from there.
After Wells penetrated and fished at the rim, a timely Haley Peters 3-pointer stretched the Duke lead to eight, leaving the Tar Heels struggling to keep up. Quickly falling behind, North Carolina began to force the ball offensively, but only managed to turn the ball over against a ravenous Blue Devil defense. In all, the Tar Heels coughed the ball up four times in the final 10 minutes, and 20 times for the game.
After a stunning tournament, it was only fitting for Jasmine Thomas to put the exclamation point on the final. With the shot clock winding down to zero and Thomas looking for a shot on the perimeter, the senior launched a three from just in front of the Blue Devil bench.
At the same time, North Carolina’s Chay Shegog fouled Haley Peters away from the ball, as Peters was setting a screen to open up space for Thomas. Shegog was whistled for the offense, and Thomas’s fadeaway shot dropped. Peters sank both from the line to give Duke a five-point play and widen the lead to 17.
“I thought that was the greatest screen ever set at that play along the baseline where Jazz hit the three and she got the call,” McCallie said. “Sometimes when you focus on the right things, a lot of really good things happen.”
After the game, Thomas, who scored 21 against the Tar Heels, was named the MVP of the tournament for the second straight year. Christmas was also named to the All-Tournament first team, while Gray was named to the second team.
The Blue Devils will now turn their attention to the NCAA Tournament and await the decisions of the selection committee, which announces Duke’s fate today at 7 p.m.
McCallie is confident that her team is at its peak, and is ready to take on all challengers.
“We definitely are making great progress, and we’re getting better every day with every game,” she said. “As long as we stay focused and in the moment, anything’s possible for us.”