North Carolina entered this season thinking it would take control of the ACC after five years of Duke dominance. The Blue Devils lost five key players, while the Tar Heels added post presence to a team returning all of its starters. And Alana Beard was gone—finally.
With an early-season loss, the Blue Devils sat eight positions behind the No. 2 Tar Heels three weeks into the season, and North Carolina was confident it finally had a chance to beat Duke.
But since then, the Blue Devils reeled off 16-straight victories and UNC has sunk to ninth in the ACC.
In the first meeting between Duke and North Carolina since Beard departed for the WNBA, the Tar Heels look to beat their biggest rival for the first time since Beard arrived in Durham. Top-ranked Duke (18-1, 3-0 in the ACC) will travel to the Dean Smith Center to take on the sliding No. 9 Tar Heels (14-3, 1-2).
“You can throw the rankings out the window,” head coach Gail Goestenkors said. “It’s just two of the best teams in the country squaring off against one another.”
The Blue Devils will be forced to deal with one of the best pressure defenses in the country. Goestenkors has been using six members of the male practice squad this week in an effort to simulate the pressure and physicality of the UNC defense.
“They are a really aggressive team,” point guard Wanisha Smith said. “They are going to get out there on defense and harass the ball.”
Last year’s UNC team lacked an inside presence, but freshman Erlana Larkins is now in the rotation. Duke has bolstered its front court as well, and this year’s game will not be decided solely on the outside.
“We always had to worry about their perimeter players, and now it just makes it much more difficult because they’ve got such a great post presence as well,” Goestenkors said.
With just eight players, the Blue Devils will enter what has traditionally been a physical game with a limited bench. Although it may seem like the lack of depth could be a problem, the team has not faltered since losing Caitlin Howe to injury. Fatigue has not proven to be a problem as Goestenkors has quickly rotated her players during the game.
Since losing at Notre Dame, Duke has not faced a team that pushes other squads around like North Carolina.
“We definitely know it’s going to be a physical game,” Monique Currie said. “They play pressure defense, they have physical players on their team.”
The emergence of Smith has been key to Duke’s success, and her defensive prowess will be put to its toughest test tonight. With an impressive performance against Virginia’s three-point specialist Brenna McGuire—holding her to one point Jan. 14—the freshman will guard the quick slasher Ivory Latta.
Latta, one of the nation’s top guards, is averaging 15.6 points per game and is shooting an impressive 91 percent from the free-throw line.
Larkins and forward Camille Little will also challenge the Blue Devils’ defense. Little averages 12.2 points per game and could create a major problems for Duke.
With even matchups on both ends of the court, the pair of Final Four hopefuls face off in what could be the first of four contests this season.
“This is always a great game,” North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “We hope to have a great crowd, and we want it to be a game that could help elevate interest in women’s basketball.”
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