Haley Peters left Chapel Hill last year with a smile on her face, despite the 17 freshly sewn stitches in her left cheek.
Peters bounced back from Tar Heel senior Chay Shegog’s ferocious, albeit inadvertent, elbow to finish with nine points and seven rebounds, leading the Blue Devils to a 69-63 victory.
The prospect of a little physicality has not left Duke’s 6-foot-3 junior apprehensive about the game—she looks forward to the energized environment.
“[The rivalry has] always meant a lot to me personally growing up and watching North Carolina-Duke games,” Peters said. “It’s an exciting game to be a part of.”
This year’s rivalry matchup, which has the potential to be equally intense, will air on national television at 1 p.m. Sunday from Carmichael Arena.
While last year’s game in Chapel Hill was well fought, the contest in Durham was a different story. Duke massacred North Carolina 96-56, the largest margin of victory in the history of the rivalry.
The No. 5 Blue Devils (19-1, 9-0 in the ACC) remain undefeated within the ACC, but Sunday’s trip down Tobacco Road should be their toughest contest to date. Point guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, averaging 14.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, paces the No. 11 North Carolina (20-2, 8-1) offense as the team’s leading scorer.
“[UNC] just has some excellent players,” McCallie said. “I think it all pretty much stems from Ruffin-Pratt as a point guard.”
But Ruffin-Pratt will not be the only talented point guard on the floor Sunday. Junior Chelsea Gray has been a stout anchor for the Blue Devils this season, averaging 13.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. The backcourt duel between Gray and Ruffin-Pratt should be physical, fun to watch, and key to the matchup.
“It’s a great environment,” said Gray. “Athletes live for moments like that – to be on the big stage and be successful – so it’s an exciting process.”
The Blue Devils have all the respect for North Carolina’s talent, highlighting frontcourt mates Xylina McDaniel and Waltiea Rolle in addition to Ruffin-Pratt. One thing they aren’t worried about, however, is the Tar Heel crowd.
“Most of them are our fans,” McCallie said, smiling in response to the question about a hostile crowd. “Check the stats. When we come to town, that’s the only time there’s a draw.”
McCallie also dismissed any notions that North Carolina was a recruiting competitor, taking a jab at the Tar Heels’ academic reputation in the process. “Sometimes [they can be], but again, admission standards are very different,” McCallie said.
With four players scoring in double figures and a deep bench, Duke certainly has an advantage on paper heading into Sunday’s contest. Dangerous perimeter shooters like Tricia Liston and Alexis Jones can stretch the floor to provide space for the dominating inside presence of Elizabeth Williams and Peters. From a talent standpoint, the Tar Heels may be slightly outgunned. Nevertheless, there are areas where the Blue Devils still need to improve.
Facing an ongoing struggle with bringing consistent energy, the Blue Devils have one main aspiration for Sunday.
“We are just trying to play an aggressive full 40 [minutes],” McCallie said. “I mean I would do anything for that. I don’t care about the outcome. Just tell me my team can play aggressive for 40 minutes.”
The sixth-year coach did not mince words when addressing the place of the classic rivalry within college basketball.
“It’s the very best basketball rivalry there is—no question about it,” McCallie said. “Where else do you coach and your neighbors are rooting for another team? I’ll still talk to them though. They’re nice neighbors.”