There were two years between the last time Duke and North Carolina battled it out and a handful of new faces on either side of the ball, but in spite of that, Thursday night’s contest was a struggle for Duke.
Heading into the competition off of two straight victories to the Tar Heels’ loss against Georgia Tech Sunday, the 21st-ranked Blue Devils came with some momentum. The match started with potential to finish in either group’s favor, but a determined Tar Heel team made that difficult for the Blue Devils, as Duke ultimately fell 78-62.
With Celeste Taylor out for the fifth straight game due to an injury and head coach Kara Lawson missing due to health and safety protocols, the Blue Devils (13-5, 4-4 in the ACC) had a lot to overcome. A second-quarter revival for the Tar Heels (16-3, 6-3) allowed them to gain 28 points on top of the 19 the group scored in the first half, making it clear that Duke would have no easy path to victory.
“I wouldn’t argue that one play necessarily changed the outcome of the game,” assistant coach Winston Gandy said at the post-game media conference. “I thought we battled back and [our play] was one of those things where we had a lot of possessions and a lot of areas we can point to that went wrong.”
Loud cheers echoed throughout Cameron Indoor, but they were primarily attributable to the sizable visiting section. After going nearly five minutes without scoring in the second quarter, Duke finally tallied a basket thanks to a Jade Williams jumper. But that wouldn’t be enough for the group, as the fire that the Tar Heels had to play with got increasingly brighter—the team went on another 11-point scoring run. Senior Onome Akinbode-James managed to snatch another layup with help from Gordon, but the single score did nothing but motivate the leading Tar Heels, who finished the half with a 21-point lead against Duke.
“I thought we took a lot of quick shots, which obviously put a little stress on our defense,” Gandy said. “Everybody when we went around the room agreed that was not us in that second quarter. And so I thought we did a great job in the second half of turning that around—flipping that script.”
Unlike the first 10 minutes of play in which the teams had a mostly balanced slate, the Tar Heels capitalized on every Blue Devil mistake during the second quarter. North Carolina notched the first score of the quarter and ended up pulling away from the Blue Devils, which struggled to keep up with their opponents as the Tar Heels drained baskets at a clip of 75% from the field to the Blue Devils’ own 30% mark.
In spite of North Carolina closing out the first half with a massive advantage against the Blue Devils, early plays didn’t always point to a Tar Heel takeover.
Sophomore Vanessa de Jesus drained the first basket of the contest, and North Carolina snagged the second, third and fourth. However, graduate transfer Lexi Gordon returned the favor as she hit a three to prove the balance the game had the potential to pose. The Blue Devils’ next score was another trey, this time from Elizabeth Balogun, as they fought to keep up with the leading Tar Heels.
With two minutes left in the first quarter, the Tar Heels grabbed a defensive rebound yet struggled to settle a basket. From there, Balogun snatched the ball and passed to freshman guard Shayeann Day-Wilson to begin a six-point scoring run by Duke. North Carolina retaliated to score another basket, but Duke got two more free throws to edge on the Tar Heels. Yet with five seconds left on the clock in the first quarter, North Carolina’s Carlie Littlefield drained a 3-pointer, which Lee Volker fouled on, to finish off the first 10 minutes with Duke in a one-point deficit.
Heading into the second half unclear of who would lead the team, Day-Wilson began a collaborative effort for the group as she notched the first basket. Following in her footsteps was Williams, who handled a Littlefield layup attempt with a block. Thanks to an improved defensive performance from the group, Duke limited the Tar Heels to a 33.3% mark from the field during the third quarter. However, that effort didn’t do much to change the score as the teams strutted into the final quarter with North Carolina leading by 23.
“North Carolina is a really good defensive team, and they just played really well today,” de Jesus said. “Getting the passes and just putting the pressure on us…. I think it’s just something that we can learn from and just get better at—just go back in the lab and work even harder.”
The Blue Devils take the road again this weekend to play Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center Sunday.
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