GREENSBORO — The smirk on Ivory Latta’s face from the opening tip said it all.
North Carolina had Duke’s number this year, and the Tar Heels played like they knew it all game long in a dominating 88-67 win over the Blue Devils Monday in the ACC Tournament finals.
UNC used a 22-8 run to pull away early in the second half and held off a furious rally late in the game, handing Duke its first tournament loss since 1999.
“They won three games against us in a row,” Duke head coach Gail Goestenkors said. “So at this point they are the better team.”
Latta, the tournament MVP, led the way for UNC with 26 points and seven assists, but she was far from the only Tar Heel lighting up the Blue Devils. Forward Camille Little chipped in 23 points of her own, including a devastating three-pointer with 8:17 remaining in the second half and the shot clock winding down.
“That was a dagger,” Goestenkors said. “They made big, big plays all night long.”
Duke dug itself a hole in the first half, going down by as many as 12 points. Were it not for the spirited play of Monique Currie, who scored Duke’s first 10 points in the first half, the Blue Devils would not have even been in the game from the beginning.
But despite Duke being outplayed, a late 7-0 run highlighted by a Jessica Foley three-pointer with a minute and a half left brought the Blue Devils back to within five at halftime.
“In the first half we had weathered the storm,” Goestenkors said. “But it got much worse in the second half—or better for them.”
Duke held close at the beginning of the second half, closing the gap to as little as three. With about 15 minutes remaining, though, North Carolina turned up its energy.
First Erlana Larkins scored down low over Mistie Williams. Chante Black coughed up the ball on Duke’s next possession, and Latta took off down the floor toward the basket. Finding no space down low, she hopped back behind the three-point line and swished the off-balance shot.
A few minutes later Latta drove the lane and rocketed the ball behind her back to guard La’Tangela Atkinson. Atkinson converted the jumper and made another three-pointer three minutes later.
“La’Tangela had not hit a basket in this tournament, and for her to hit two threes, we really weren’t counting on that,” Goestenkors said.
Then after a few minutes of back-and-forth play came Little’s three-pointer, which put UNC up by 20 with nine minutes to go. Little made 4-of-5 from beyond the arc for the game, and the Tar Heels made 10-of-19 as a team.
Currie, who finished with 26 points, tried to rally her teammates, and Duke got as close as 12 with five minutes to play. It was too little, too late, though, and the Blue Devils were forced to watch North Carolina celebrate its first ACC title since 1998 after losing to Duke in the finals the last three years.
“I said, ‘Coach, we’re going to get us one next year,’” Latta said about the feeling of watching Duke celebrate on the same court last season. “I’m on cloud nine right now. I don’t know when I’m coming down.”
Unlike the teams’ previous two meetings this season, during which UNC scored many of its points off Duke turnovers, this time the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils at their own game.
Even though they were smaller, the Tar Heels outrebounded Duke 53-37 and had almost as many offensive rebounds (18) as the Blue Devils did defensive rebounds (22). UNC scored 17 second-chance points and shot the ball at a much higher clip than Duke overall.
The Blue Devils had hoped to reverse the trends of their regular season losses but instead ended up getting swept by UNC for the first time since the 1996-1997 season.
“I thought the third time would be the charm for us against Carolina,” Goestenkors said.
The Blue Devils must now shift their focus to the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 19.
“You can’t dwell on it,” Currie said. “We swept Carolina the past three years, and we still haven’t won a National Championship. So I’m looking forward to the tournament starting, and hopefully things will get better for us.”
Duke had won five consecutive ACC Tournaments coming into Monday night.... The Blue Devils had only 12 assists after averaging 21 in the first two ACC Tournament games.... Monday was Duke’s worst loss since a 1998-1999 defeat at the hands of Notre Dame.... Currie made the All-Tournament first team, and Black made the second team after a quiet night in the finals; Latta, Little and Nikita Bell all made first team.
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