At the end of last season, no one expected the Blue Devils to be in their current position.
Alana Beard, Iciss Tillis, and Vicki Krapohl graduated. Brittany Hunter transferred to Connecticut and Lindsey Harding was suspended for the season, leaving Duke with just eight players.
The No. 2 Blue Devils (26-2, 12-1 in the ACC) were picked to finish second in the ACC, even though they had lost only one conference game the past three seasons.
But despite the less-than-lofty expectations, Duke has the chance to win its fifth consecutive ACC regular season title Sunday against eighth-ranked North Carolina (23-3, 11-2) in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
A loss to the Tar Heels, however, would crown North Carolina champs of the most talented and deepest league in the country and mark the first time the Blue Devils lost consecutive games to UNC since the 1997-1998 season.
“Gail’s done an excellent job with the team at Duke because they’re very different than how they’ve been the past few years,” Tar Heel head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “They’re playing basketball according to what their strengths are and they’re really a tough team.”
In the two squads first meeting of the season Jan. 12, then No. 12 UNC outhustled former top-ranked Duke to a 56-51 victory. After a sloppy first half in which the Tar Heels doubled the Blue Devils’ offensive output, 26-13, junior forward Monique Currie valiantly tried to carry her team back, only to come up short and have the Blue Devils’ 12-game win streak against their archrivals snapped.
“They got a big win in Chapel Hill so we’re definitely looking to redeem ourselves on Sunday,” Currie said. “Everyone knew that game was coming up and we’re all looking forward to it.”
Currie played without any hesitation Thursday night for the first time since being diagnosed with a stress fracture in her left foot. Head coach Gail Goestenkors said she expects her star to play at full capacity now that she has gotten adjusted to the fiberglass orthotic she has been wearing in her shoe.
Once again Duke will need to contend with Naismith Trophy mid-season candidate Ivory Latta. The speedy point guard struggled from the field in UNC’s Jan. 24 win, but she still managed to lead her team in scoring and hit a three-pointer that sealed the contest.
Latta enters Sunday’s game averaging more than 18 points and five assists per contest over her past five games.
In the first meeting, the Tar Heels outrebounded Duke despite their significant height disadvantage. Senior Nikita Bell grabbed five offensive boards on her way to 12 points and both Erlana Larkins and La’Tangela Atkinson pulled down 10 rebounds a piece.
Also contributing to the Tar Heels win in the Dean Smith Center was the sloppy job the Blue Devils did handling the North Carolina pressure, as they turned the ball over 23 times. Duke’s freshman point guard Wanisha Smith had the worst game of her collegiate career turning the ball over eight times, in just 22 minutes.
She enters the rematch coming off one of her best games, however, dishing out a Duke freshman record 10 assists.
Much of the Blue Devils’ success Sunday will depend on her effectiveness handling the quick UNC defenders. Duke cannot afford to turn the ball over around the perimeter and allow the Tar Heels to break.
The two teams play contrasting styles. The Blue Devils would rather slow the tempo of the game down, run their half-court offense and feed the ball to their post players. On the other hand, Latta likes to lead North Carolina on the break in a more fast-paced style.
Both teams are coming off games in which they cruised to victory. The Tar Heels stomped Virginia 89-60 on their senior night, and the Blue Devils trampled Miami 95-61 at home.
“That matchup between Carolina and Duke is going to be an awesome game for the last game of the season prior to the ACC Tournament,” Miami head coach Ferne Labati said.
Prior to the 8 p.m. tipoff, the Blue Devils will honor Wynter Whitley, the team’s lone senior, as she competes in her final home contest. In addition, Duke junior Mistie Williams’ father, famous singer Chubby Checker, will be singing the National Anthem.
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