Duke came into its regular-season finale against North Carolina following its first ACC loss of the season. The No. 5 Blue Devils responded in a big way Sunday.
Led by freshman guard Alexis Jones’ career-high 22 points, Duke (27-2, 17-1 in the ACC) outlasted the No. 15 Tar Heels (26-5, 14-4) 65-58, cutting down the nets after the game to celebrate their fourth-straight ACC regular season title.
It was not a pretty game—the teams combined for 51 turnovers—but the Blue Devils’ stingy defense and superior free throw shooting helped them secure victory in front of a sellout home crowd—the team’s first sellout since 2011. The Tar Heels were held to a season-low 29.7 field goal percentage, including a stretch in the second half when they missed 19 consecutive shots from the floor.
North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell also lamented North Carolina’s struggles at the free throw line, where the Tar Heels shot 9-of-21 as a team. The Tar Heels held the edge, though, in turnovers, rebounds and steals.
“I see all these categories where we beat [Duke],” Hatchell said. “If we’d made some foul shots, we would have won the game.”
North Carolina’s inability to convert offensively made keeping pace with Duke difficult down the stretch. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt led the Tar Heels with 16 points in the team’s losing effort.
“We missed a lot of shots,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “We fought hard until the end. Like Coach said, we won in all the categories we wanted to win in, except for points.”
The first half was a sequence of runs for both teams. Two free throws from Alexis Jones gave Duke a 12-point lead with 6:08 remaining in the period, but several Duke turnovers allowed the Tar Heels to charge back and take a 27-26 lead going into halftime.
For all the Blue Devils’ miscues on both sides of the ball, they reclaimed a lot of energy and toughness on Sunday—characteristics that had been missing at points recently. Head coach Joanne P. McCallie noted how the team’s determination paid off, especially in the second half.
“The difference in the second half—even though they took a six-point lead and we had to come back from that—[was that] we were playing more physical,” McCallie said. “We were more focused and more physical at that time.”
Coming off the bench, junior Chloe Wells epitomized this attitude. Wells only had two points in the game, but her defensive energy was consistently high. As Duke clung to an eight-point lead late in the second half, Wells’ grit resulted in one of the key plays of the game. With just six minutes remaining, North Carolina’s 6-foot-6 center, Waltiea Rolle, brought down an offensive rebound and turned to put it back up. But the diminutive Wells leaned in and ripped the ball from Rolle’s grasp. Rolle hacked at Wells in frustration, earning her fifth and final personal foul.
“That was a huge play,” McCallie said. “And it was a toughness play. How tall is Chloe? Smallest player on the floor going after the biggest player on the floor and coming out with that rebound.”
The loss of Rolle proved a crucial blow to the Tar Heels’ chances, leaving a defensive void that Jones, junior Haley Peters and sophomore Elizabeth Williams were all able to exploit. Both Peters and Williams finished in double figures, and the pair combined for 13 rebounds. North Carolina used full court pressure and intentional fouls to slow the game’s ending, but Duke shot 10-for-12 from the line in the final two minutes to seal the seven-point win.
On senior night, the Blue Devils could not have honored Allison Vernerey—the team’s lone senior—more than by closing out their fourth-consecutive undefeated regular home season and completing the sweep of their Triangle rivals. Vernery started the game for Duke, notching four points and six rebounds.
“Alison is incredible,” McCallie said. “Coming all the way to Duke from overseas—I kind of laugh when student athletes tell me they’re homesick, and then I think of Ali, and the distance she came to follow a dream that she had as a basketball player in France.”
Vernery thanked fans, friends and family before leaving the court, expressing appreciation for support over her four-year tenure. She and her teammates will look to garner some momentum from this win heading into Greensboro next Friday, where they will begin the ACC tournament.
“When we get back, it’s a brand new season,” McCallie said. “It’s exciting in its own right, and with a lot of great lessons from this one.”