Duke has not had a promising start to the post-Splash Sisters era, and is in serious jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament for just the second time in 26 seasons.
But all that goes out the window for the Blue Devils when it comes time to play their Tobacco Road rival eight miles to the south.
Duke will travel to Chapel Hill for 2019’s first rendition of its famed rivalry against North Carolina Thursday at 7 p.m. at Carmichael Arena. The two teams have had very different seasons to date. While the Blue Devils have yet to defeat a ranked team and are home to only two ACC wins against squads with a combined 1-17 conference record, North Carolina is winners of four straight, including two victories against top-10 units.
But when these two teams go to battle, all in the past is forgotten. It will be a packed stadium—last year’s Chapel Hill attendance of 4,634 was 700 more than the Tar Heels’ matchup with then-No. 4 Louisville later in the season. But for each squad, especially one as young as Duke’s, it is essential for the players to block out everything from their minds and focus on the task in front of them.
“It is a tough environment, like any environment,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “It is a neighborhood thing—that is just the way it is. I generally think you throw out records and you throw out all experiences, especially in these games. There is a sense of familiarity as well.”
North Carolina (14-9, 5-4 in the ACC) is coming off a huge road win against No. 7 N.C. State, just seven days after a historic upset of No. 1 Notre Dame. The team’s key to success has been its ability to win the turnover battle and get in transition—the Tar Heels totaled 19 steals and only 17 turnovers against the two ACC powerhouses.
For the Blue Devils (10-11, 2-7), their focus will be controlling the tempo of Thursday night’s matchup. It can be tough to avoid getting overly-excited leading up to such a big contest, but McCallie believes slowing the game down will go a long way if Duke hopes to win its first game in Chapel Hill since February 2017.
“They are a transition team,” McCallie said. “Regardless of who we play we must control the tempo. We must have the ball in our hands for a longer period of time, because frankly with eight players the only time you can rest is on offense. You can slow the ball down and we can play a great quarter-court game...without the three point guards it is a challenge because point guards kind of have that in their blood.”
The leading scorer of the Tar Heels’ offensive attack is sophomore center Janelle Bailey, at 16.6 points per game. But it is redshirt senior guard Kea Paris who the Blue Devils really have to focus on shutting down. Paris was huge in North Carolina’s stunning win over the Fighting Irish—dropping 30 points on 11-of-17 shooting—and was also instrumental in the Tar Heels’ overtime win against Duke last year in Chapel Hill—putting up 36 points on 15-of-23 shooting from the field.
And in her last home game against Duke, there is no doubt that the Blue Devils are going to have to bring an extra gear on defense if they want to even try and contain the Greensboro, N.C., native.
“[Kea] has been a part of every positive thing they have done—whoever they have beaten,” McCallie said. “You are not going to stop her. You just simply got to make her work hard for her shots and work hard on the other players. But you are not stopping her. She has proven to be one of the most elite guards in the league.”
The Blue Devils own guards, however, have also lit up the box scores recently. Junior Haley Gorecki has posted three consecutive double-doubles, including only the eighth triple-double in program history during Duke’s win against Pittsburgh Sunday.
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Meanwhile, freshman Miela Goodchild has been lights out from downtown, scoring 43 points over her last two games including an 11-for-17 mark beyond the arc. Her 3-point percentage of 47.1 ranks eighth in the nation.
Following North Carolina, Duke will travel to Charlottesville, Va. to take on Virginia Sunday. Right around the corner is its own matchup with top-ranked Notre Dame on the road Feb. 21, a great opportunity for a resume-building statement victory. Until then, however, the Blue Devils have other goals to fulfill.
“We are trying to improve as a basketball team,” McCallie said. “And we have not been exactly great at that. So we are trying to extend our defense and really be much more aggressive. There is a whole concept of getting better and then there is a whole concept of it is a neighborhood bloodbath. It is a very physical game and obviously a rival and all that good stuff.”