With all eyes on a potential rematch against North Carolina Monday night, the women’s basketball team will first have to contend with a bracket full of upset-minded squads on its quest for a sixth consecutive ACC Tournament championship.
After losing twice in conference play to the Tar Heels, Duke (26-3, 12-2 in the ACC) earned the second seed for the tournament.
The Blue Devils received a first-round bye and will begin play in the quarterfinals Saturday against the winner of the game between 10th-seeded Wake Forest and seventh-seeded Virginia Tech.
Although Duke swept the rest of its conference slate, including wins against the Hokies and Demon Deacons, its two losses to North Carolina may provide a blue-print for other teams to attack. Last Sunday’s loss to the Tar Heels exposed several weaknesses that the Blue Devils must improve upon before this weekend.
“We’ve just been breaking things down again and making sure everyone’s on the same page again,” head coach Gail Goestenkors said. “Rebounding and handling traps and pressure were obviously things that were not successful against [North Carolina] in both games. [That lost] brought the team together and caused them to re-evaluate and rededicate themselves.”
A wake-up call like its regular season-ending loss might be exactly what Duke needs to maintain focus for the tournament with a pair of potential sleeper teams looming in the quarterfinals. The Blue Devils only played Virginia Tech and Wake Forest once each during the regular season because of conference expansion.
In their first ACC game of the season Jan. 9, the Blue Devils pulled away late to defeat Virginia Tech, 88-67. Ten days later, the Blue Devils rode the hot hands of Mistie Williams and Alison Bales to beat Wake Forest, 99-86, in a shootout in Winston-Salem.
By the time the teams step on the floor in Greensboro, it will have been nearly two months since Duke has faced either potential opponent.
“I’m glad we only played them once because I think it’s much more difficult to beat a team three times than it is to beat them twice,” Goestenkors said.
Though Duke is able to anticipate its tournament matchups, it will only have 24 hours to prepare once the game is over between Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
“It’s just the tournament atmosphere,” Bales said. “The ACC is a big deal for us, and that’s just how much time there is. You can’t spend a week preparing.”
The 24 hours that the Blue Devils will have to ready for their opponent will be spent readying for one of two vastly different styles of play.
The Demon Deacons are extremely quick and will often throw five guards on the court at a time. Their high-pressure, high-octane game could spell trouble for a slower, more traditional Blue Devil squad.
Virginia Tech usually pounds the ball inside to honorable mention All-ACC forward Kerri Gardin and center Erin Gibson. With Gardin and Gibson paired together, the Hokies sport one of the only front lines in the ACC that can come close to matching up with Duke’s formidable quartet of posts.
Both teams are fighting for their postseason lives, with Virginia Tech hoping for a strong tournament showing that will propel it into the NCAA bracket.
“I think whoever we play, unless we get to the finals, will feel like an underdog,” Goestenkors said. “We’re used to that.”
Another pair of hungry teams, Maryland and N.C. State, looms in the semifinals for Duke. The Blue Devils needed late buckets by unanimous first-team All-ACC selection Monique Currie in wins over each squad in late January.
Third-seeded N.C. State has a first-round bye and sixth-seeded Maryland has the easiest opening matchup against cellar-dwelling Clemson.
The Wolfpack matches up well against Duke, playing a similar style to that of North Carolina. They are the second-most athletic team in the conference after the Tar Heels, Goestenkors said.
“We’ll be prepared for whoever comes,” Currie said.
The Blue Devils will need a balanced attack to counteract the athleticism of potential opponents.
“We can’t just watch one player make plays,” Goestenkors said. “I think we learned that again in the Carolina game. We have to be able to trust each other.”
Duke will be able to put more faith in Currie who, after weeks of hobbling on a fractured left foot, has looked healthier the last two games and will soon be free of the boot she has been wearing on her foot while off the court.
Another comforting factor for the Blue Devils will be the venue. The ACC Tournament has been held in the Greensboro Coliseum for the past five seasons.
“It’s like a second home for us, and that’s the way we need to play,” Goestenkors said.
Barring any mishaps, though, all eyes will be on the championship Monday night. With the unbalanced schedule this year, the only true league title will be given to the team that wins the tournament. In addition to pride, a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is at stake.
“I think this tournament’s going to be outstanding,” Goestenkors said. “Every game is going to be a great battle.”
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