CHAPEL HILL — It was the perfect tragedy: No. 12 UNC (15-3, 3-2 in the ACC) toppled the No. 1 team in the NCAA, which just happened to be its archrival. Monday night Duke (18-2, 4-1) fell to the Tar Heels 56-51 in its first ACC loss of the season.
“The tougher team won,” head coach Gail Goestenkors said. “I thought they played tougher. They were the aggressor.”
Although both teams shot poorly from the field in the first half—the Tar Heels at 26.8 percent and the Blue Devils at 16.7 percent—UNC was able to capitalize on Duke’s sloppiness on the offensive end. The Tar Heels accumulated 11 steals in the opening half alone that often converted into transition baskets.
“Our quarter-court defense I thought was exceptional,” Goestenkors said. “They were scoring in transition and off offensive rebounds so when we had three turnovers in a row, and the turnovers led to lay-ups—they were at half-court—so we couldn’t even get back to play some defense.”
Duke failed to maintain control on offense under the defensive pressure of UNC. In three consecutive possessions, Wanisha Smith lost the ball to aggressive perimeter defenders. In all three instances, the Tar Heels were left with a wide open court for easy breakaway layups. With 1:18 left in the first half, UNC had doubled Duke’s score and had a commanding 24-12 lead.
“We had real intense practices and Coach [Sylvia Hatchell] stressed how we need to get in the lane, deny, play real intense,” senior guard Nikita Bell said. “That’s all I was focused on, just being intense. I just wanted to step it up another level and just give it all out.”
Monique Currie and Mistie Williams, who combine for 33.1 points per game in the ACC, were stifled by tight traps and double teams in the post and were ineffective. At the end of the first half, the duo had only combined for three points and the Blue Devils trailed 26-13. The deficit could have been greater if UNC hadn’t also struggled from the field, shooting 11-of-41.
Currie was able to build momentum for Duke’s struggling offense after the break. Despite picking up her fourth foul early in the half, Currie threatened to take the game from UNC.
The Tar Heel defense was unable to stop the versatile Duke forward who made driving layups, three pointers and free throws on her way to 17 points in the final eight minutes. With 1:04 left, Currie scored her last two points on free throws, bringing Duke within two at 53-51.
“I knew we had to play with a sense of urgency, and we couldn’t be tentative at all,” Currie said. “We were trying to come back and I guess I was just trying to get the best shot I could, try to get more aggressive and get more involved in the game.”
But in the end, Duke’s comeback was stopped short at the foul line. Alison Bales and Currie each missed a pair of crucial free throws, while the Tar Heels connected on 3-of-4.
The loss to UNC ends Duke’s NCAA-best 16-game win streak and its 12-game win streak against its Tobacco Road rival. The contest was packed with season-lows as Duke shot 23.3 percent from the field, tallied a mere 51 points and registered only eight assists.
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