On Feb. 7, it looked like the Blue Devils had finally turned things around.
They had won two straight—both in blowout fashion and the most recent in Chapel Hill against their Tobacco Road rivals. The next two teams up were Virginia and Virginia Tech, both of which were dwelling near the bottom of the ACC rankings.
Duke held 20-plus game winning streaks against both of them. In what has become typical fashion, the Blue Devils dropped them both. With only four games left in the regular season, Duke will not break 0.500 in the ACC. At best, the Blue Devils will have their worst ACC record since 1993-94 where Duke went 7-9.
This doesn’t seem likely.
The Blue Devils will take on No. 5 Notre Dame Thursday in South Bend, Ind. at Purcell Pavilion at 7 p.m. where Duke hasn't won since the Irish joined the ACC. Notre Dame is coming off a championship season and returned four starters from last year.
It’ll take a perfect game from the Blue Devils, and then some, to hold off the Irish. Notre Dame has only lost one game at home—to Connecticut in December. The Irish have the No. 3 offense in the country, sitting at 87.2 points per game, and a jaw-dropping plus-24.8 scoring margin over their opponents. They lead Duke in nearly every major statistical category.
“It’s pretty simple,” McCallie said after Thursday's loss. “The heart and hustle, the spirit it takes to get a loose ball is what lost [the Virginia Tech] game for us. It’s not about perfection but it’s going to have to be gutty, it’s going to have to be really gritty.”
If the Blue Devils (11-13, 3-9 in the ACC) want to keep it close, they’ll have to hit their threes. The one spot of hope comes from Jan. 27, when Notre Dame played North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The Irish dropped that contest 78-73. The next week, Duke walked in and blew the Tar Heels out. Don’t count the Blue Devils out of this one yet, but it’ll take a level of grit that hasn’t been sustained throughout an entire game yet this season.
Duke will look to Haley Gorecki, it's leading scorer with 18.0 points per game, to take over and lead by example.
“She plays with a level of intensity and grit, the grit that I’m talking about," head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "If you could spread it like peanut butter, you could just spread it around, and that grit could go around. Haley’s like that kind of player. She’s the talented player with the grit.”
Notre Dame (24-3, 11-2) is coming off two blow-out wins—a 50-point beatdown of Boston College in Boston and a 23-point win against No. 9 N.C. State in Raleigh. The Irish have five players averaging in double figures, with senior guard Arike Ogunbowale leading the way at 21.0 points per game.
Duke’s tournament hopes look nearly non-existent at this point. It’ll take a stretch of brilliance down the stretch and a strong showing in the ACC tournament. Even then, nine conference losses are a lot to overcome with the committee. It hasn’t been all bad though—the Blue Devils have shown stretches of brilliance—they just seem to be unable to close out close games. Their last seven losses have come by an average of six points.
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Coming up after Notre Dame, the Blue Devils will travel to Winston-Salem, N.C. to take on struggling Wake Forest. They’ll finish up the regular season at home in Cameron—first against a bubble tournament team Clemson and then against North Carolina for the second time this season, with the Devils hoping to complete the season sweep.