ACC championships do not come easily. They require a continuous stretch of strong play over the course of a long weekend.
That is exactly what the Blue Devils will look to accomplish this weekend at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C., to potentially match up against some of the top teams in the nation. No. 18 Duke enters the ACC tournament as the No. 4 seed and will face fifth-seeded N.C. State Friday morning in the quarterfinals at 11 a.m., with its sights set much higher than just one win.
“Obviously, we pursue every championship we could possibly play. We’ve been in a championship many times. We’ve won it sometimes. Last year of course, we did not,” Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “You always want to be playing for championships. That’s always the dream, the focus, the opportunity.”
To earn a double-bye, Duke (22-7, 11-5 in the ACC) needed two wins to wrap up the regular season after falling to Syracuse on the road. With an upset of No. 9 Florida State 79-66 Monday and a comfortable win against North Carolina on Senior Day, the Blue Devils clinched the valuable extra day of rest.
But before Duke can think about a championship run, it will need to focus on the Wolfpack, who have been playing better since the two teams met Jan. 7. That Sunday afternoon, the Blue Devils scored the first 18 points before the Wolfpack clawed back to as close as four midway through the third quarter.
“We were streaky in that game and we’ve been streaky in a number of games this year, and I’d like to get rid of that tag, the streaky tag,” McCallie said. “I’d like us to be consistently attacking, really getting after it, and hopefully we can use that in the tournament.”
The two in-state foes are different teams than they were two months ago. Graduate student Rebecca Greenwell was held scoreless in 13 minutes and did not attempt a shot from the field, and redshirt sophomore Haley Gorecki notched 13 points with six assists to complement Lexie Brown’s career-high 34 points in the 69-56 win.
The tables are now turned, as Gorecki is sidelined for the season with a hip injury and Greenwell’s 31-point showing led Duke past North Carolina Sunday.
“We weren’t whole when we played them in that regard. But you just take the principles and the concepts technically as much as you can,” McCallie said. “[N.C. State] had an excellent game against North Carolina. They played smart, mature basketball.... At this point, everyone’s really good and that’s a fact of life, and we just have to focus on what we want to do.”
N.C. State (23-7, 11-5) opened play Thursday morning by defeating the 12th-seeded Tar Heels 77-64.
Playing an early-morning game poses problems to some coaches, as the timing differs from a typical game day, but the Blue Devils are not worried, and the Wolfpack will have less than 24 hours of rest after Thursday’s game.
“I really like it just because you can get out there right away, get your work done and move on,” McCallie said. “You’re at the stage now where March is about anytime, anyplace, anywhere. It’s not about convenience and it’s not about [being] easy or any of that stuff.”
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With a quick turnaround approaching after every postseason game, McCallie said the team does not “go up and down” the court practicing as much in March, instead working more on technical skills to keep the players fresh.
With the double-bye, Duke will only need three wins in three days to claim the championship Sunday afternoon. With a win Friday, the Blue Devils would the winner of top-seeded Louisville and ninth-seeded Virginia Tech. In its lone meeting with the Cardinals, Duke outscored then-undefeated Louisville by eight points in the fourth quarter before falling by six.
The Blue Devils last won the tournament in 2013, capping a run of three titles in four years. McCallie currently holds the ACC tournament’s top winning percentage ever with a minimum at 73.1 percent, though Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw—12-0 right now—would eclipse her this season with a run to the finals.
The Fighting Irish have eliminated Duke from the conference tournament in all four of their years in the ACC, and the Blue Devils would need a second straight run to the finals to meet this year’s No. 2 seed again.
“[Notre Dame has] been pretty dominant. They’ve had the best players and so they’ve had the best team and they haven’t been beat too much,” McCallie said. “They haven’t been dethroned yet. They were dethroned a little bit by not finishing in first place, but that’s just the start of that kind of thing. They’ve still dominated the ACC tournament.”
Duke is playing for much more than ACC bragging rights this weekend, though. The top four seeds in the NCAA tournament, equating to the top 16 teams, will host the first two rounds. For the Blue Devils, that could easily mean the difference between a Sweet 16 appearance or a second-round exit. Duke has split its 12 road contests this season, but has won 18 of its 19 games at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“We have an RPI of 12, which is pretty good. That’s all I care about is RPI and how we rate there,” McCallie said. “That’s not the fan mentality. That’s not the polls and all that stuff. I don’t think about that stuff because it’s just not relevant. But RPI matters, and it would be nice for our RPI to climb.”
Duke’s RPI could climb a bit with a win against the Wolfpack, but victories against top-five Louisville and Notre Dame would certainly give the Blue Devils an added push into the top 16 before Selection Monday March 12.
Duke will have to play its way back to Durham at its “home away from home.” The Blue Devils have won eight ACC championships at the Greensboro Coliseum since 2000.
“It is a lot of fun. We feel the Duke fans. It’s great to have Duke fans come support us,” McCallie said. “It’s a great environment. It’s just a really fun city, and the way they embrace women’s basketball is outstanding.”