In a battle of the two remaining unbeaten teams in women's college basketball, North Carolina raced back from a 13-point halftime deficit and defeated Duke, 74-70, Sunday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Six days after thumping then-undefeated and No. 1 Tennessee, the Blue Devils (20-1) looked to be on pace to do the same to the Tar Heels (20-0). But Duke could not stop North Carolina for the fourth consecutive time the rivals have met.
North Carolina scored on 14 of its final 16 possessions, erasing what was still a 12-point Duke lead with just over nine minutes to play. The Tar Heels outscored the Blue Devils 28-12 over that decisive period.
"Our backs were against the wall and we had to produce," North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "We'd been holding out until we had to turn it on, and we turned it on at the end."
Two made free throws by Erlana Larkins with three minutes to play gave UNC its first lead of the game-one it would not relinquish-at 66-64. Reserve guard Alex Miller followed on the next possession by beating Duke guard Abby Waner off the dribble and finishing with a layup to push North Carolina's lead to four.
After a turnover by each team, senior Monique Currie drilled a step-back three-pointer to close the margin to just one with a minute and a half to go. But that was as close as the Blue Devils would get.
"We knew that they could go on a run," Currie said. "Coach G always says that games have a lot of runs, and we were expecting them to come back."
North Carolina needed the late-game spurt because it dug itself a deep hole in the first half, going into halftime down 40-27. The Tar Heels were actually down by 16-their largest deficit of the season-before junior guard Ivory Latta, who finished with 17 points in 40 minutes, nailed a long three-pointer in the half's final minute.
No Duke player scored more than seven points in the first half, but Lindsey Harding dished out six assists, and the team outrebounded UNC by 10 in the period. The Blue Devils also forced 12 Tar Heel turnovers.
But Duke's defense broke down after the teams re-emerged from their locker rooms, allowing North Carolina to cut the lead down to six with an 11-4 run to open the second. Larkins, a 6-foot-1 Tar Heel forward, nailed her second and third three-pointers of the season over a span of three possessions when the Blue Devils left her wide open at the top of the key.
North Carolina only turned the ball over twice during the second half and was able to use the extra possessions to break down Duke's defense off the dribble.
"I thought they played a really good game, but they played a great second half," head coach Gail Goestenkors said. "I thought they were the aggressor on both ends of the floor."
Duke, however, still had plenty of opportunities to win the game. The team hit just 11-for-23 free throws on the game. Harding missed the front end of a one-and-one with just under three minutes to play and Mistie Williams-Duke's leading scorer with 16-missed her second with five seconds to go and the chance to close the gap to one.
Williams nearly made the shot on which she was fouled, but the potentially game-tying three-point play did not materialize. The Blue Devils could not come up with the rebound off Williams' miss. Fittingly it was La'Tangela Atkinson, who ripped down 15 of UNC's 30 total rebounds, who tracked down the errant attempt. Atkinson was subsequently fouled, and her two free throws iced any chance of a miracle comeback.
"Against a great team, you have to do the little things well, and making free throws, taking care of the ball, those are two things that we usually do a pretty good job with and unfortunately did not tonight, and Carolina made us pay for it," Goestenkors said.
Sunday's loss means that Duke, despite the huge win over the Lady Vols, will not be No. 1 when the new AP poll is released this week. That honor will go to the Tar Heels, who are the only remaining unbeaten in all of Division I college basketball-men's or women's.
Duke faces North Carolina for the second time Feb. 25 in Chapel Hill.
"I told the team I'm kind of glad, if it was going to happen, that it happened early," Goestenkors said. "I know that we will be better because of this game."
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