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Duke women’s basketball to begin final run for postseason in rivalry matchup with North Carolina

<p>The Blue Devils are looking for a spark to turn around their mediocre season.</p>

The Blue Devils are looking for a spark to turn around their mediocre season.

It’s always a huge game when North Carolina ventures into Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

With Duke’s arch rival making the short trip from Chapel Hill for a Thursday night battle, the Blue Devils must display an understanding of the opportunity in front of them. Coming off a game against N.C. State that “had a lot of dynamics to it,” according to Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie, the Blue Devils must regroup and prepare for another local clash.

North Carolina is clearly in the second tier of ACC squads behind Louisville and N.C. State. The Tar Heels, predicted to finish ninth in the conference, have exceeded expectations under first-year head coach Courtney Banghart. Banghart was tasked with unifying a program that had just endured a scandal and the resignation of former head coach Sylvia Hatchell. 

The former Naismith Coach of the Year arrived on campus after compiling a 254-103 record at Princeton over a span of 12 seasons, and so far, she has clearly been the right fit in Chapel Hill. With North Carolina entering Thursday’s contest having won its last two games, there is some positive momentum on its side. Here are a few things to watch for in this iteration of the Tobacco Road rivalry.

Let it fly

North Carolina (16-6, 7-4 in the ACC) has a distinct playing style that matches what Banghart is attempting to accomplish. Offensively, the Tar Heels strike from beyond the arc at a proficient rate, with heavy ball-screen action giving their guards the airspace to pull up from distance. Small ball allows North Carolina to utilize four-out sets, creating real mismatch problems for the defense. Sometimes, each player on the court for the Tar Heels can shoot 3-pointers effectively. This system has yielded an average of 75.8 points per game and a 35.4 percent mark from deep.

While it’s not quite identical to the Golden State Warriors of recent years, an offensive structure built around shooting will always compromise a defense's ability to either go under screens or help off the pick and roll. As is usually the case with good shooting teams, North Carolina relies on spacing and skip passes to force off-ball help defenders to keep their head on a swivel. Senior guard Shayla Bennett operates as a skilled floor general, either taking her defender off the dribble or kicking it to junior center Janelle Bailey for a pick and pop. 

Multiple Tar Heel opponents this season, including the seventh-ranked Wolfpack, have made errors when guarding Bennett in the pick and roll. If her defender goes under the screen, Bennett has a quick enough release to get her shot off. Once her defender starts to overplay the pick, Bennett will either refuse the screen or attempt to draw other defenders into the paint by attacking. 

This tactic does not only apply to Bennett. Taylor Koenen is a savvy playmaker with a knack for finding the open teammate off the dribble. Look for Haley Gorecki to potentially match up with Koenen, with a combination of Miela Goodchild and Kyra Lambert also guarding Bennett.

Keep the pressure

In Duke’s (11-10, 5-5) heartbreaking defeat to North Carolina State, a main problem was giving up points off turnovers, as the Wolfpack capitalized on most Blue Devil giveaways. On the other end of the floor, the Tar Heels are aggressive and prone to forcing turnovers, with their opponents coughing the ball up an average of 14.8 times per contest. Opponents looking to get the ball into the post will often have to deal with a defender fronting, making what is usually a simple entry pass an exceedingly more complicated ordeal. 

With active hands and quick guards, North Carolina can get out in transition early and often. Crisp screen setting and off ball movement will be paramount for the Blue Devils, as the Tar Heels look to push the tempo off any offensive error made by their opponents. Lazy passes around the perimeter will get easily intercepted by North Carolina guards ready to pounce, so Duke must be sharp in that regard.

Duke has been close many times this season down the stretch, but as was the case again against N.C. State, the Blue Devils often cannot find a way to seal the deal. With McCallie stating after Sunday’s loss that she “loved our team defense, [but] looking for a little more offense,” look for Duke to find Gorecki and Leaonna Odom matched up with weaker defenders. 

With Thursday’s matchup signaling the start of a softer schedule the next two weeks, now is the time for Duke to start a winning streak that could yield positive momentum in the push to March. The Blue Devils must challenge North Carolina’s opportunities from beyond the arc and dictate the tempo in what figures to be a hard-nosed affair.

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