With the ACC regular season title on the line, the Duke women’s basketball team collapsed at Cameron Sunday night against North Carolina.
The No. 8 Tar Heels outrebounded and out-pilfered the Blue Devils as they outscored No. 2 Duke, 77-68.
Duke played like an underdog instead of the favorite. The Blue Devils, who had won the ACC regular season championship four consecutive times, played with a panicky style, which cost them a chance to pick up their 16th win over UNC in 18 contests.
Even National Anthem singer Chubby Checker, Mistie Williams’ father and a Duke supporter who pumped his arms for the home team, was out of sync Sunday night, stumbling over the final few words of his game-opening performance.
A lot has been said this season about Duke’s strong interior game and size advantage over most squads. And, for most of the season, the Blue Devils have exploited that edge, particularly with Alison Bales dominating the paint defensively and Chante Black commanding the post when Duke has the ball.
Against the Tar Heels, Duke again possessed that height advantage with Bales, Black and Williams, who stand at 6-foot-7, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-3, respectively. UNC’s tallest starter, 6-foot-2 freshman Erlana Larkins, said Bales’ height made her one of the most challenging players she has ever faced in the paint.
“I just came in there with the mentality that I didn’t want to let her take me out of the shots that I would usually take,” Larkins said. “Don’t be afraid of the height and just go up strong.”
The Tar Heel freshman certainly went up strong and put together impressive statistics in her 36 minutes—19 points, including 9-for-10 from the line. But Larkins’ success depended on Duke’s fumbling hands and errant passes in the post.
The usually stoic Bales expressed clear frustration throughout her team’s final regular season game. With a one-point Blue Devil deficit and less than four minutes remaining in the game, Bales had an emphatic rejection on an Ivory Latta jump shot that sparked a strong energy on the court and in Cameron as the Blue Devils headed into a media timeout. But the energy faded into further frustration after Duke tied the game just to have Latta quickly make a three that put her team ahead for good.
The Blue Devils’ court woes also resulted from an inability to execute offensively. For much of the night, Duke looked sloppy. Many of its numbers, though below the team’s season averages, fail to fully explain the team’s struggles.
For instance, the Blue Devils did grab 34 rebounds, but they failed to properly position themselves when going for defensive boards, allowing the smaller UNC squad 16 offensive rebounds. The Tar Heels also out-hustled Duke, coming up with a majority of loose balls Sunday night.
The Blue Devils committed 25 turnovers, many of them results of a breakdown in basic fundamentals. On several occasions, UNC picked off lazy passes headed for Duke’s post players, contributing to the Tar Heels’ 17 overall steals.
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North Carolina certainly has a talented squad led by its exceptional point guard Latta, but its win resulted more from Duke’s failure to play to its post strength and a Blue Devil frustration that resulted in 27 fouls on the night.
North Carolina’s victory essentially came on the foul line, with the Tar Heels making 27-of-31 free throws. The Blue Devils went to the line for 12 shots and made only half of their attempts.
Duke has not struggled with foul trouble much this season. But against UNC, four Blue Devil starters had at least four personal fouls and point guard Wanisha Smith fouled out.
North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell said she “couldn’t ask for a better ending” to the regular season because of the game’s competitive atmosphere.
For Duke, it was exactly the opposite. Its loss to UNC was marked not by an exciting competitiveness, but a collapse of its normal ability and its ACC regular season championship run.