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Duke heads down Tobacco Road with ACC title on line

With a win against the North Carolina Saturday, the Blue Devils can secure the ACC regular season championship along with the top seed in the ACC tournament.

The Tar Heels, however, have not proven to be a beatable opponent in recent contests.

"This game will decide who is the ACC champion," senior guard Monique Currie said. "We know that we gave the game away the last time we played here, and we're looking to redeem ourselves and come out with a win Saturday."

After a 74-70 loss to the Tar Heels Jan. 29, Duke (25-1, 12-1 in the ACC) put its bid for a sixth-straight regular season title in jeopardy. However, when UNC (25-1, 12-1) lost to No. 4 Maryland, 98-95, in overtime Feb. 9, it gave the Blue Devils a second chance to stand alone at the top if they defeat the Tar Heels Saturday at Carmichael Auditorium.

The No. 1 seed would allow Duke to avoid a potential ACC Tournament matchup against Maryland, which will be the No. 2 seed if the Blue Devils win and the third seed if UNC wins. Head coach Gail Goestenkors said it was important to avoid playing a two or three-seed before the ACC championship game.

"The players know what's on the line," Goestenkors said. "And it is Carolina. So, I don't have to say a whole lot to get the team motivated."

After holding a 12-game winning streak against the Tar Heels that dated back to the 1999-2000 season, the Blue Devils dropped all three matchups last year by an average of 11.7 points, including an 88-67 loss in the 2005 ACC Tournament championship game.

When the two teams squared off at Cameron Indoor Stadium earlier this season, Duke held a 13-point lead at halftime and looked like it would end the losing skid. But UNC used its fast-paced style of play to score on 14 of its last 16 possessions and extend the streak to four.

Senior forward Mistie Williams said in past years, the Blue Devils were the aggressors, but in their losses to the Tar Heels lately, they have not used that same assertive style of play.

"We were too passive," Goestenkors said of the Jan. 29 matchup. "We passed the ball from side to side too much instead of having the attack mindset that you need against pressure teams. It was a very physical game, and I think we understood afterwards that we needed to be a little bit tougher."

The Blue Devils stayed on top of the Tar Heels in the early part of the second half while Tar Heel forward Erlana Larkins was on the bench due to foul trouble. Duke even led by 12 with 10:11 remaining, but when Larkins reentered the game in the second half, she torched the Blue Devils for 17 of her 23 points en route to the UNC victory.

Larkins has given Duke's larger post players trouble during North Carolina's recent dominance. As a freshman last year, Larkins scored 19 in the Tar Heels' win in Cameron and recorded a double-double in the ACC finals blowout.

Along with Larkins, the Blue Devils defense will have to shut down UNC guard Ivory Latta, who ranks second in the ACC in scoring at 18.2 points per game.

In order to instill more mental and physical toughness in her team, Goestenkors said she has increased the amount of rough play in practice.

"We've had guys in practice most every day since then and I just stopped calling fouls on the guys," Goestenkors said. "I told them to be aggressive and be real physical with us so that we would have to be tougher than we were."

Even if the Blue Devils defeat the Tar Heels Saturday and secure the No. 1 spot, history suggests that it will not be the last matchup of the two rival squads this season. Duke and UNC have met in the last four ACC finals.

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