CHAPEL HILL — Free throws are the one predictable thing in a basketball game. You know just where you’ll have to stand. You know the defenders can do nothing but watch from a distance. It’s just you, a basketball and a basket. You’ve done this since you were old enough to hold a basketball, and nary a practice has gone by that you didn’t shoot a free throw.
It ought to be easy. But with several thousand hostile fans and 30 years of rivalry breathing down your neck, suddenly things get a bit more complex.
No. 6 Duke’s inability to convert from the free-throw line proved to be its undoing in a 64-54 loss to North Carolina (18-10, 6-8 in the ACC) at Carmichael Arena Sunday.
With 13:03 left in the second half, Jasmine Thomas missed two free throws after Tar Heel freshman Cierra Robertson-Warren was ejected for a flagrant foul. The Blue Devils proceeded to miss four more free throws in the next 20 seconds, preventing Duke from extending its three-point lead.
“I thought we were playing pretty good basketball up to that point,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We were taking command in a good way, then shot a bunch of free throws, didn’t hit any of them and didn’t get as much of a cushion.”
“Jasmine missed that first one…. Then our fans got into it, and they missed six in a row, so I guess all of us were like, ‘Let’s go,’” North Carolina guard Cetera DeGraffenreid said.
Held to just four points and no field goals at that juncture, DeGraffenreid exploded in the final 13 minutes, outscoring the entire Duke team 18-13.
She added four steals in the second half as well, each of which seemed to come just as the Blue Devils (24-5, 12-2) were about to get their act together. Duke had no answer for DeGraffenreid’s quickness and confidence, and the Blue Devils played the final six minutes of the game without scoring a field goal. Duke had just four free throws to show for its efforts.
“[She] took us on her back when we needed it and led the team,” North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell said of DeGraffenreid.
The Blue Devils could not shake ball control woes for much of the game, committing 22 turnovers. This, along with physical play—both teams were in the double-bonus with over eight minutes to go in the second half—kept the team from establishing a flow on offense. Duke looked as though it might snap out of its funk coming out of halftime, as Bridgette Mitchell and Joy Cheek keyed a 15-4 run to put Duke up 41-34.
But the run could not erase an abysmal 26.8 percent shooting performance for the night. Despite taking 25 more shots than their opponents, the Blue Devils tallied just one more field goal. Many of Duke’s misses came from behind the arc, as they sank just three of their 22 3-point attempts. The Blue Devils did force 30 turnovers, but to no avail.
“This game was bizarre,” McCallie said. “In 18 years of coaching, I’ve never been involved in a game quite like this before, so for us, it’s a great lesson.”
But if the Blue Devils are going to capitalize on that lesson, they’ll need to make some free throws.
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