The last time the Blue Devils started 0-2 in ACC play was the 1992-93 season, when they began conference play 0-9. Since getting off to the same two-game start this season, however, Duke has made sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
The No. 15 Blue Devils will roll into Carmichael Arena to face North Carolina Sunday afternoon riding a four-game winning streak after dropping their first two conference games. Duke has beaten the Tar Heels by a combined 60 points in the past two meetings between the rival programs in Chapel Hill, including a 95-71 blowout last year. Redshirt senior Lexie Brown has been particularly hot, as she notched her 1,000th point for Duke against Virginia Tech Thursday night.
“The team is playing hard and together. [Brown’s play] today, going inside and going to the basket, just finding a way to do what you can do, I think that kind of exemplifies it,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “It’s absolutely terrific, and I think it’s great that it was natural the way [the 1,000th point] came about, and now she can feel good and build on it from here.”
But this year’s North Carolina squad has already shown distinct improvement compared to last season, matching its total number of conference wins from last year already with a three-game win streak that was snapped Thursday at home against N.C. State.
The Tar Heels’ improvement can largely be attributed to a more developed backcourt that features two experienced returners, senior Jamie Cherry and redshirt junior Paris Kea, and a frontcourt that has been sparked by freshman center Janelle Bailey. The addition of Bailey, who just won her fifth ACC Rookie of the Week Honor, has been critical to North Carolina’s resurgence so far this season.
Bailey, a 6-foot-4 center from Matthews, N.C., is one of nine underclassmen on one of the youngest teams in the nation, but has already more than made her mark on the Tar Heels. She leads all ACC rookies in scoring and rebounding at 15.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, and her 54.0 percent shooting percentage from the field is good for seventh among all players in the conference. Her presence on defense is impressive as well, as she is averaging 1.4 blocks per game, just outside the top 10 in the ACC.
In addition to Bailey, North Carolina (13-6, 3-3 in the ACC) boasts another uniquely notable newcomer: Leah Church, a homeschooled freshman from Kernersville, N.C., who once made 32 3-pointers in one minute to set an unofficial world record, eclipsing the previous mark of 27. Despite her prowess, however, the Tar Heels are shooting just 33.2 percent from beyond the arc as a team, a far cry from Duke’s 41.6 percent, which leads the nation.
Sunday’s game will be a test for the Blue Devils, who have allowed just two opponents to eclipse the 70-point mark this season, but allowed Virginia Tech to reach 75 in Duke’s win Thursday, the most points the Blue Devils have surrendered this season. Duke (15-4, 4-2 ACC) leads the ACC in blocks and steals per game with 5.3 and 9.5, respectively. Freshman Jade Williams, who has started four games in a row for the Blue Devils, has averaged 2.0 blocks per game to lead the conference, and graduate student Lexie Brown is the only player in the league with at least 70 steals and 70 assists.
“We’re a very fluid team defensively. We go from zone to man and press, and I think that gives some teams trouble sometimes,” said Brown.
One of the primary concerns for Duke this season has been rebounding—the Blue Devils were outrebounded 37-31 against the Hokies, and have yet to outrebound an ACC opponent this season. Williams, senior Erin Mathias and sophomore Leaonna Odom are going to have to be the catalysts for the Duke to reverse this pattern.
"If [the rebounding] comes, if that comes at a rate where we can really take people off the glass—and I do think we did at critical times—but throughout, then I just really think that’s going to help us tremendously,” McCallie said.
Although the rebounding situation has been disappointing, a road trip against their biggest rival may be just the motivation the Blue Devils need to get back on track.
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