When it was all over, little Ivory Latta stood in front of a television camera and did a variation of the running man.
It was only appropriate, given that the 5-foot-6 Tar Heel point guard spent her entire evening stomping all over the Blue Devils.
With less than two minutes to go and the game tied at 63, North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell drew up a play for Latta to work around a high screen set by teammate Erlana Larkins. Latta, coming off of Larkins’ pick, found herself alone on the left wing. Her three-point shot swished through the net with 1:47 remaining to give UNC a 66-63 lead that it would not relinquish.
“Coach was saying, ‘If they go under [Larkins’ screen], take the shot,’ and that’s what I was mostly looking for. Fortunately, she went under, so I took the shot,” Latta said. “I just stepped up and took a big shot and felt very confident about it.”
After Jessica Foley missed a wide-open three-pointer from the right corner on Duke’s next possession, Blue Devil point guard Wanisha Smith fouled Latta. She calmly sank both free throws to push the margin to five with 1:26 remaining, and the Tar Heels drained 10-of-12 free throws over the last 90 seconds to ice the game.
North Carolina’s 77-68 victory over Duke gave the No. 8 Tar Heels (23-3, 12-2 in the ACC) both their first regular season sweep of the Blue Devils (26-2, 12-2) and their first ACC regular season championship since 1997.
No. 2 Duke failed to win the ACC regular season title for the first time since 2000 and saw the longest home winning streak in ACC history snapped at 33 conference games.
North Carolina led for almost the entire game before Duke center Mistie Williams hit a jumper from the free-throw line to give the Blue Devils a one-point advantage with 6:27 remaining.
The Blue Devil lead ballooned to four points when Monique Currie froze her defender with a cross-over dribble and hit a three-pointer from the left wing.
“Once we got up a couple points, we thought that we could keep it up,” Currie said. “But they always hit big shots after us.”
Following Currie’s three, the Blue Devils were able to force a Tar Heel miss but could not prevent Larkins from grabbing the offensive rebound. Her subsequent three-point play pared Duke’s lead to just one.
Williams was called for a loose-ball foul hustling to get an offensive rebound, and UNC forward Camille Little’s two free throws put North Carolina in the lead.
After two free throws by Larkins and a spinning baseline layup by Currie, Latta hit an 18-foot jumper to make the score 63-60. An offensive rebound by Carolina’s Nikita Bell—the Tar Heels hauled down 16 on the night—set up the Latta bucket.
“I felt like rebounding was the difference down the stretch,” Hatchell said. “At halftime we were behind in rebounding, and I told them if they won the boards then they’d probably win the game.”
Just 15 seconds after Latta’s score, the Blue Devils answered. Currie found Smith behind the three-point arc and the freshman buried the shot to tie the game at 63 and set the stage for Latta’s late-game heroics.
End-of-contest fireworks did not seem likely at the end of the first half. The Blue Devils had already committed 18 turnovers and trailed 38-30 at the break.
The Tar Heels were able to frustrate the Blue Devil offense with their aggressive, full-court defense like the last time the teams met, Jan. 24 in Chapel Hill. Even in their half-court sets, Duke’s guards struggled to throw good entry passes and the Blue Devil post players had problems catching the ball when it got to them. Duke turned the ball over 25 times and North Carolina recorded 17 steals.
“They get in passing lanes, they get all over you, they pressure you,” Duke head coach Gail Goestenkors said. “They anticipate very, very well. Any time the ball goes into the post, they trap.”
Duke staked out an early five-point lead four minutes into the first half, but the rest of the period belonged to the Tar Heels. UNC grabbed the lead with 14:48 to play in the period and expanded it to as many as 10 before the Blue Devils cut the gap to eight at the half.
Latta was the game’s high scorer, registering 23 points in 39 minutes.... Currie scored 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting to lead the Blue Devils.... Bell finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and nine steals, one steal shy of the first triple-double in UNC history.... UNC’s 17 steals were the second-most recorded by a Duke opponent this season. The Tar Heels’ 18 steals in the teams’ first meeting remains the most.... Wynter Whitley, Duke’s lone senior, was honored before the game on Senior Night.
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