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Haley Gorecki dominates as Duke women's basketball takes down North Carolina

Gorecki finished off her home career against North Carolina on a high note.
Gorecki finished off her home career against North Carolina on a high note.

A performance like this comes around once every hundred years, or in Duke’s case, once every hundred games.

Duke women’s basketball won the hundredth contest of the Tobacco Road rivalry Thursday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium, defeating North Carolina 71-61. Duke utilized suffocating defense and lights-out shooting in the second half for the program's 50th win against the Tar Heels, leaving the two teams tied all-time.

“I’m really proud of our team, especially defensively, in terms of shooting percentage and the pressure,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “[There were] a lot of nice plays out there and a lot of great intensity. We’re very appreciative of our great fan support; nice and loud and crazy as it should be.”

It wouldn't be a Duke game without an ever impressive offensive show from the pride and joy of Cameron Indoor Stadium: Haley Gorecki. In the final home North Carolina matchup of her college career, the star guard finished with 25 points on an efficient 7-of-12 shooting, not to mention posting a double-double with 12 rebounds.

The Blue Devils came into this game following a disappointing loss against No. 7 N.C. State, which was a challenging, yet winnable game. Duke’s biggest flaw, which has been a repeating trend this season, is its inability to close out winnable contests. The frustration that's come with these losses provided the Blue Devils with the anger and passion required to take down a balanced and foreboding North Carolina squad. 

The beginning of the contest resembled an even boxing match, with each side trading blows and no one having a clear upper hand. The first quarter’s staggering eight lead changes culminated in a Mikayla Boykin last second 3-pointer to put the Blue Devils up 18-16 at the buzzer.

Boykin has been used sparingly throughout the season, but tonight McCallie set her loose and showcased the full force of the Clinton, N.C., native. The redshirt freshman typically hits her stride in the second half, but tonight she was in a hurry to make a statement, posting eight of her 11 points in the first half while Duke was holding onto its lead by a thread.

“[It was] just high energy, wanting to get stops on defense and having fun,” Boykin said. “That’s all we preach and we did that, so it’s just a lot of fun.”

Duke’s defense absolutely suffocated the Tar Heels throughout the first half. The Blue Devils excelled at directing their attention to the players that were heating up, consistently controlling the momentum. One example of this was North Carolina star guard Shayla Bennett, who missed all five of her field goal attempts in the second quarter after finishing the first period as her team's leading scorer.

But there was one aspect Duke did struggle with in terms of matching up with the Tar Heels over the first 20 minutes: rebounding. North Carolina finished the first half with a 24-16 advantage on the boards.

Duke led by only two at the half. But within two minutes out of the locker room, the Blue Devils led by six without giving up any points to the struggling Tar Heels. After four minutes, Duke was up by 14, and North Carolina was still without a bucket. It was this stretch that decided the game. The drought ended shortly after the Blue Devils' 14th consecutive unanswered point, but the offensive onslaught was far from over. Duke ended the third quarter having outscored the Tar Heels 20-12. 

“I really liked our composure and slowing the ball up after a couple quick shots and recognizing our control over the ball,” McCallie said. “Of course some key plays were made by various people, some good rebounds, and Haley taking care of things on the foul line.”

Learning from its failure to close out games, Duke ramped up the aggression once it built up its double-digit lead. This meant switching to a full-court press, everyone sticking to their matchups like glue and strongly contesting every shot. Unfortunately, the aggressive ness resulted in seven free throw attempts for North Carolina in the fourth quarter, of which the visiting team knocked down five. These points defined a clear momentum shift, and while Duke still had a comfortable lead, the roar of Cameron’s crowd notably dropped a few decibels. 

Nevertheless, clutch free show shooting of its own clinched the game for the home team, including five made free throws from Gorecki over the final minute.

While Gorecki undoubtedly led the Blue Devils, the credit does not belong to her alone. With four other players scoring at least nine points, two of which being Gorecki’s fellow guards Boykin and Kyra Lambert, this truly was a team victory.

“I loved it,” Gorecki said. “I think playing with guards on the floor, we move faster. Obviously we have a ton of outlets, everybody can handle the ball. It’s fun, it’s fast. We find each other really well and we look for each other all the time.”

The all time Duke-UNC record is now tied at 50-50, and the stage is set for the tiebreaker on March 1 in Chapel Hill. This game was a testament to Duke’s grit and underrated defensive intensity, which will serve the team well as it proceeds down a stretch of inferior ACC opponents, looking to grab ahold of some momentum for the second half of the season. The Blue Devils next take on Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. this Sunday at 2 p.m.

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