For each of the last 24 seasons, at least one member of the Tobacco Road rivalry has had a spot in the NCAA tournament. With both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels below .500 in ACC play, that streak hangs in the balance entering the teams’ regular-season finale.
Duke will travel the familiar 11 miles to Chapel Hill to battle North Carolina at Carmichael Arena Sunday at 3 p.m., with both teams in the unfamiliar position of needing strong showings at next week’s ACC tournament to keep their NCAA hopes alive. With one of the richest rivalries set for another edition, the Blue Devils cannot afford to look past the Tar Heels and toward the postseason.
“It’s a neighborhood brawl anyways,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “It always has meaning and that’s just the way it is.”
In past seasons, the end-of-year showdown with North Carolina (14-15, 4-10 in the ACC) has carried seeding implications, determining whether or not the Blue Devils would get to host the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend. But now, with postseason hopes at stake, Duke needs a win just to keep itself in the conversation.
Back on Jan. 24, the Blue Devils (18-11, 7-8) pounded the Tar Heels 71-55 in Durham, shooting 41.5 percent from the field while holding the visitors to just 26.3 percent. Duke got double-figure scoring contributions from junior Oderah Chidom and redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell as well as a dominant performance from sophomore Azurá Stevens, who registered 26 points and 14 rebounds.
Since then, though, the Blue Devils have battled through a disappointing stretch, losing five of their last eight games. Four of those losses have come without Stevens—a midseason Wooden Award candidate—after the 6-foot-6 forward tore the plantar fascia in her left foot in the first half against then-No. 3 Notre Dame Feb. 1.
Add in numerous injuries to Duke’s role players—including a concussion suffered by freshman Faith Suggs Sunday against Georgia Tech and a knee injury that has sidelined redshirt freshman Lyneé Belton for the remainder of the season—and McCallie’s squad has been forced to go off-script, thrusting younger players into the spotlight.
“Basically, we still have the adversity, but we are a great story,” McCallie said. “We are fighting. We have 18 wins and we want to grow that as much as we can and tell the story of a team that had a lot of things they could not control happen to the team, but have them rise anyway.”
During the last few games, Duke has struggled to control the glass. The Yellow Jackets notched 24 offensive rebounds Sunday in Durham, winning the overall battle of the boards, 45-36. Georgia Tech’s 15 second-chance points were critical, but when it came down to crunch time, four consecutive Yellow Jacket offensive rebounds allowed them to bleed precious seconds off the clock.
For the Blue Devils—who outrebounded North Carolina by just one a month ago—crashing the glass and limiting extra opportunities will be key Sunday afternoon.
“We just have to rebound that basketball,” McCallie said. “We have to really do a good job keeping them off the boards—limiting them to one shot and shutting down their transition. That’s something that’s coming out of our Georgia Tech film as well. There were transition points we gave up which really should not have happened and then also the offensive rebounds that Georgia Tech got. So in that regard, that game prepares us a bit and we need to build off that and become better because of it.”
If Duke can secure rebounds on both ends of the floor, it will be able to dictate tempo, another key to victory Sunday in a battle of two short-handed teams. The Blue Devils have a limited number of healthy bodies available—Suggs’ concussion will be evaluated Friday—and the Tar Heels utilize just eight players in their regular rotation. Although neither team is likely to push the pace or play pressure defense all afternoon, both sides will want to set the tone in terms of speed.
“[I just want the game played at] our tempo,” McCallie said. “We want to run when we want to run, and we want to play a nice quarter-court game when we want to play that. We do need to make them play defense and have them have to work very hard on defense. Quick shots, up-and-down craziness—that does not favor us. We want to be very smart and play high-level basketball.”
Duke and North Carolina combined for zero total bench points in the last contest, and for a Duke team that lacks a dominant scoring weapon without Stevens, a team effort—particularly on the offensive end—will be key going forward into postseason play.
“It’s the energy thing,” McCallie said. “It’s the high energy we’re looking at from the bench. The productivity will follow, but our energy has been just okay—not great off the bench. I’m hoping the players that come off the bench can give us high-energy defense, great focus and then just allow their game to develop on the offensive end. We need a bit more of that.”
If the Blue Devils are to head to the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., next week with any type of momentum, it will have to be found in enemy territory Sunday afternoon.
Ryan Hoerger contributed reporting.
A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."