Despite winning by double-digits, Duke had to play its toughest to secure a hard-fought 71-56 victory over Maryland (19-4, 10-2 in the ACC), in a game that had the feel of an NCAA tournament contest.

The Blue Devils (22-1) improved to 12-0 in ACC play, led by junior guard Chelsea Gray’s career high 28 points, 20 of which came in the second half.

“I love a game that emulates an NCAA tournament,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I love any game, to be honest with you, when you can learn and play and advance what you’re doing. We got better today.”

The Blue Devils led for the entire first period, containing the Terrapins’ leading scorers, Alyssa Thomas and Tianna Hawkins, to a combined eight points. If not for the hot shooting of junior guard Katie Rutan, who knocked down three three-pointers in the first half, Maryland might have found itself down double-digits by the time it entered the locker room.

Despite the lack of offense from Thomas and Hawkins in the opening period, the Terrapins trailed by only three at halftime. Duke’s interior duo of junior Haley Peters and sophomore Elizabeth Williams struggled to find open looks in the paint, combining for only six shot attempts and six points. If not for junior guard Tricia Liston’s 11 first-half points on four-of-six shooting, the Blue Devils might have been losing at halftime.

The second half went back and forth until Gray sparked a 13-2 run with just more than 10 minutes left to play, pouring in seven consecutive points in a three-minute span and giving the Blue Devils a huge boost in momentum.

After Terrapin head coach Brenda Frese received two technical fouls and an ejection during a media timeout with just under four minutes left to play, Gray knocked down her four allotted free throws and sealed Maryland’s fate.

Gray, who has averaged 16.5 points and seven assists over her last two games against the Terrapins, increasingly looked for her own shot in the game’s crucial moments. The Manteca, Calif. Native also recorded her 1,000th point on a first-half free throw, becoming the 28th player in school history to do so.

“She is strong, she is physical, she definitely had her way with us,” Frese said. “She was able to attack off the bounce, did a great job reading screens, coming off them and making plays. That’s what great players do. I thought she was terrific tonight.”

While Gray led the Blue Devils’ late second half run, Williams also provided a strong presence in the paint, scoring 10 points and pulling down seven boards in 17 minutes of play.

“I just tried to keep posting up hard inside and being aggressive,” Williams said. “Things started to open up in the second half, and I was finishing better.”

Duke’s strong second half offensive effort was not the game’s deciding factor, though. The Blue Devils’ scrappy rebounding—Duke guards pulled down a combined 19 boards—and hard-nosed defense shut down the Terrapins. Facing the nation’s second best rebounding squad, the Blue Devils only pulled down two fewer boards than Maryland.

“I love the fact that [Williams] led us in rebounding, played so many minutes without getting into foul trouble [and] was able to be really strong and physical,” McCallie said. “Love to see [Liston] with six rebounds. That’s just so important to us, to have our guards get rebounds and be attacking.”

Peters, while failing to score, effectively cancelled out Hawkins, who leads the Terrapins with 19.6 points per game. Peters’ lack of scoring hurt the Blue Devils, but her tough defense against Hawkins, who did not register a point until the 13:45 mark of the second half, crippled Maryland’s offensive effort. And after allowing Rutan to go off for 11 points in the opening period, Duke held the sharp-shooting guard to three points in the second half.

What doesn’t show up on the stat sheet—tough defense, boxing out, taking charges and hustling for loose balls—made all the difference in a game that was much closer than the 15-point Blue Devil victory might suggest.

“This was an interesting game for us,” McCallie said. “And it wasn’t perfect. The film’s going to have all sorts of interesting messages for us, but it was physical, and it was tough and it was a grind-out, and that’s good.”

In two weeks, Duke will find itself in College Park, Md. for a rematch against the Terrapins. If the Blue Devils can win their next three conference games, they will find themselves playing to tie for the best start in ACC league history at 16-0, most likely with a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament on the line.