After almost two long, long years of waiting, it’s finally time for No. 21 Duke to take on North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Both teams have had impressive seasons and are on remarkably similar records, meaning Thursday contest in Durham promises to be a match of equals with one singular goal: shut the other down and paint the Triangle their shade of blue. Here are five things to look out for before the Blue Devils take on the Tar Heels.
Duke’s starting point guard spot is no longer an obvious decision for head coach Kara Lawson. It’s an abundance of riches at the position for the Blue Devils (13-4, 4-3 in the ACC) , who possess two very capable options in the experienced playmaker Vanessa de Jesus and, in the last few games, the sharpshooting and free-scoring Shayeann Day-Wilson. It’s been the latter who has stolen the spotlight in recent weeks, however, with a string of immense performances against even the nation’s very best teams.
Day-Wilson has been electric from the floor, averaging an impressive 12 points per game and posting double digits in each of her last five outings, including trips to Virginia Tech and then-No. 4 N.C. State, the most recent being a team-leading 13-point showing at home against Virginia. Day-Wilson was named ACC Freshman of the Week for her performances against Miami and Virginia, and rightfully so; she’s been an unsung heroine of a roster missing the superstar firepower usually brought on by the injured Celeste Taylor. With her remarkable scoring consistency and penchant for making each game better than the previous, Day-Wilson has been a force this season and, should she start or not, will be incredibly hard for the Tar Heels to stop should her purple patch continue.
North Carolina (15-3, 5-3 in the ACC) needs one of those obnoxiously neon signs and it should say: “Deja Kelly is really good at basketball.”
The sophomore guard has been a revelation for the Tar Heels this season, sitting third in scoring in the ACC and averaging a ridiculous 17.2 points, 2.3 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game. She’s also been lethal from the line with her 85.7% mark and currently possesses a season-high 31 points in her game against Clemson Jan. 2. What’ll be most frightening for Duke, though, is not just the ability she possesses but her propensity to turn it on when it matters, like in her 21-point game against current national No. 3 N.C. State earlier this month despite her team’s 45-72 loss.
Kelly is a skilled playmaker, scorer and rebounder, but perhaps most crucially she’s a fierce competitor. She’s lit up North Carolina’s ACC Slate with only two games (last week’s loss to Georgia Tech and a win against Syracuse last December) below 15 points and enters this game, like Day-Wilson, on a sizzling run of form. Chapel Hill’s best is visiting Durham Thursday, and Kelly will be keen to prove that in spite of recent losses she’s still right in the mix with the conference’s top players.
Two sides of the same coin
Though the records of Duke and North Carolina show two wins and a win and a loss last week, respectively, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Even if the Blue Devils got back to winning ways following a pummeling at the hands of N.C. State in Raleigh Jan. 16, it was by no means pretty nor comfortable. The victory against Miami was labored and defensive, and they narrowly edged past a surprisingly resilient Virginia team at home that came down to the final few minutes. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, dispelled Virginia to extend their home winning streak to nine games and then lost convincingly to No. 14 Georgia Tech, a defeat which saw them fall out of the top-25.
Despite Duke’s wins, they haven’t looked convincing, and North Carolina’s last two games suggest the same. For Lawson and her Blue Devils, Thursday will be about defeating a historic rival and cementing a comprehensive, convincing win, and for North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart and company it’ll be about avenging the Georgia Tech loss and placing themselves back in the nation’s ranked elite. Point is, the showdown at Cameron Indoor Stadium is one both teams need to boost morale and prove that wins need not be labored and losses need not be derailing. It’ll be a game in which momentum is reestablished or defeats are justified; it’s a quintessential barometer and will be a great way for coaches, players, fans and pundits to accurately assess the standings of these teams whose profiles have been skewed by recent showings.
A pair of absences
Duke’s had an unavailability debacle in recent weeks. First it was without star junior Celeste Taylor to an unspecified shoulder injury in the games following the win at Syracuse Jan. 9, then it was senior Miela Goodchild due to health and safety protocols. The pair have combined for 272 points this season and been the Blue Devils’ primary scoring threat at various stages: Taylor before her injury and Goodchild in the games in which Taylor has been sidelined. Evidently, Duke has been able to get results without them in the lineup, but their absences will be felt against a very talented North Carolina team.
Taylor, as we’ve noticed without her on the court, is an incredible source of athleticism and technical ability that’s been sorely missed. Sure, her numbers have been somewhat supplemented by the emergence of Day-Wilson and improved performances by Onome Akinbode-James and Nyah Green, among others, but her spark has been harder to replace. Taylor regularly sprints the length of the court for a pull-up triple, sinks a fast-break layup or shuttles a beautiful no-look assist to an open teammate, and this dynamism and energy has been the most notable impact of her absence. Similarly, though it was only for the Virginia game, Goodchild has been a prominent threat from beyond the arc and has harassed opponents with her clinical accuracy from deep, something that hasn’t yet been matched.
It’s unclear so far whether Goodchild will be cleared to play against North Carolina and the extent of Taylor’s injury, but their absences will definitely be felt in a game that will take a full team effort to win.
Close in proximity, closer in ability
The Duke and North Carolina rivalry is perhaps the NCAA’s most famous and competitive. These schools hate each other. A lot. And when they’re as close in standing as they are on a map to each other, the clashes are even greater.
Thursday’s matchup should be, fortunately for the neutral viewer, one such occasion. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels are separated by only one loss. The space between these programs this season is razor thin, and with a packed house at Cameron Indoor Stadium, ACC standing on the line and the ever-important need for a one-up on the other, expect this game to be electric. Both teams enter Thursday’s matchup with great players in hot form, tactically astute coaches, wrongs to right and something to prove and the flame of rivalry burning beneath it all. It should be an electric occasion, and one any neutral viewer would be remiss to ignore.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.