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Five things for Duke women's basketball's regular-season finale against North Carolina

Graduate student Lexi Gordon is 49 points away from 1,000 in her collegiate career.
Graduate student Lexi Gordon is 49 points away from 1,000 in her collegiate career.

After yet another taste of defeat in Thursday’s clash with Boston College, the Blue Devils return for one final regular-season outing at the Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina. It’s a game the Tar Heels are once again favored to edge but one that also presents a final opportunity for Duke to steady its keel before next week’s conference tournament. Here are five things to know before the second and final Tobacco Road rivalry game of the women’s basketball season.

Transition defense woes

Needless to say, Duke didn’t have a great time Thursday at home against Boston College. The Blue Devils led just once–a 6-2 lead in the first five minutes–and otherwise trailed the visitors consistently, falling victim to clinical shooting from the Eagles and ruthless counter-attacks off turnovers.

While some of this can be attributed to a lack of confidence amid Duke’s shocking late-season collapse, from a tactical standpoint it was largely down to a lackluster transition defense that time and again left the team exposed for easy, undefended buckets. As head coach Kara Lawson  assessed in the post-game press conference, North Carolina, on the contrary to her own team, possesses one of the nation’s premier transition offenses.

That’s bad news for a Blue Devil squad desperate to end a disappointing season on a high. Coming off yet another wasteful and disheartening performance against the Eagles, it needs a rebound in Chapel Hill, but that seems unlikely if its shaky-at-best transition defense fails to stop an electric Tar Heel attack that topped national No. 4 Louisville and has eclipsed 60 points in its last seven games.

Lexi’s last dance

Most would list Shayeann Day-Wilson as the potential X-factor for Duke against North Carolina. While that’s probably accurate, there’s another player on this roster that deserves recognition for something entirely different.

Graduate student Lexi Gordon is 49 points away from 1,000 in her career.

It’s practically impossible for her to hit that mark Sunday, but 1,000 career points for anyone is a landmark accomplishment. Just over a quarter of her 951 point tally has come this season (249) and just over half of that has been from downtown on a 48-of-143 mark from three. Much like her team’s season, her offensive exploits haven’t been immensely consistent nor consistently immense, but she’s a difference maker when she’s on fire and can swing a game in her team’s favor by herself. Just look at her 23-point showing in this month’s close win against Wake Forest.

Day-Wilson’s spotlight is warranted, no doubt, but Gordon’s had a season to remember of her own and, should she play lights-out Sunday and in next week’s ACC tournament, she may just close her college career having eclipsed the elusive four-figure barrier.

Uh-oh Ustby

North Carolina has put together a comprehensively excellent season, sitting a comfortable fifth in the ACC and 18th nationally with just five losses to its name. Leading the charge for the Tar Heels has been Deja Kelly on the scoring end and Alyssa Ustby on the rebounding end, each sitting fourth in the ACC for their respective statistics. Though Kelly will likely be North Carolina’s primary offensive outlet in Chapel Hill Sunday, Ustby may actually cause Duke more problems.

The sophomore guard has been scary good this year. She’s owned both the offensive and defensive glass with a ridiculous 8.7 rebounds per game and threw down 20 points the last time these two teams met in January. The Blue Devils, in good form at the time, didn’t have an answer for her then, and it seems less like they will now, as Ustby is an incredibly well-rounded player with consistent scoring and rebounding excellence. In each of its last five games, Lawson’s squad has allowed a single player to snatch 18 or more points, something Ustby herself has done seven times, all while hitting double digits in boards in 13 games.

Should she continue her remarkable form, she has the potential to turn Duke’s late-season headache into a migraine.

Senior salute

Thursday’s Senior Night ended disappointingly, to say the least.

This comes much to the chagrin of the Cameron Crazies, who, through thick and thin, COVID cancellations and concerns over whether the season would even be played, backed their veterans in a final year that, to many, was just their second full season.

If the game against Boston College was Senior Night in name, Sunday’s game has the potential to be Senior Night in practice. Aside from Elizabeth Balogun’s 11 points and Onome Akinbode-James six boards, the seniors had a relative off night and will no doubt be hoping to end their Duke careers on a high. We’ve seen it before; Miela Goodchild and Lexi Gordon can shoot from three and Jade Williams and Akinbode-James have the potential to dominate the glass. At this point, they just have to turn ifs into dos.

It’s the last hurrah Sunday for six Blue Devils. Hopefully for them, and for their fans, it’ll be a sendoff to remember.

Season sputtered

Much like a sprinter attempting a 5k, Duke got out fast, hard and confidently in the opening weeks of the season, storming to a marquee win over then-No. 9 Iowa and a national ranking of 15. It then tired a bit, still hanging with the ACC peloton while splitting wins and losses, then fell off hard as it slumped to four defeats in its last five games. While the teams at the top of the conference, like North Carolina, kept rolling and kept pushing, the Blue Devils lost their legs and were slowly cut adrift from the pack they once ran with.

It’s not really clear where, why or how this collapse is happening, but it’s happening nonetheless. Whereas a couple weeks ago the aim was preserving an NCAA tournament berth, now it’s merely heading into the ACC tournament with any momentum at all. This is a team that’s reeling and a team that’s struggling.

It’s a team that needs a win at North Carolina not for anything tangible, but to bring back a bit of confidence and a bit of belief.

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