CHAPEL HILL—The stage was set for a perfect revenge plot. The storyline could’ve been the Blue Devils dominate the 18th-ranked Tar Heels on their Senior Day at North Carolina’s Carmichael Arena, avenging their loss and carrying that momentum into the ACC tournament.
Yet, in their final regular-season matchup against the Tar Heels, this revenge plot remains just a foiled blueprint, as the Blue Devils lost 74-46.
With a healthy Duke lineup that featured junior guard Celeste Taylor back on the court and head coach Kara Lawson on the sidelines, the respective star power and leadership that was missing back on Jan. 27’s loss was filled. Hence, what seemed to be the missing keys in their last faceoff were all there tonight. However, Duke was plagued with careless turnovers, wide-open airballs and missed defensive rebounds—handing Carolina an easy victory on their home turf.
“We weren’t as disciplined as we needed to be on the defensive end. Offensively, I thought we got some solid looks. Obviously, we didn’t shoot a great percentage and the 20 offensive rebounds. That first half really hurt us… I thought that was a big part of the separation,” said Lawson. “Disappointed, but we’ve got to move on.”
The first half saw the Blue Devils(16-12, 7-11 in the ACC) struggling to find their rhythm, missing vital offensive rebounds and open shots. Despite Onome Akinbode-James winning the opening tip that led to a quick Taylor three-pointer, this opening momentum couldn’t be carried throughout the half. Instead, the Blue Devils largely relied on short stints of individual production to minimize the scoring gap against the tough, physical Tar Heel defense. But individual performances weren’t enough against an opponent whose teamwork was on full display.
When the Blue Devils tried to find an opening on offense, the Tar Heels were always a step ahead. They read through the plays Lawson drew up, went through screens and were able to contest the majority of shots that the Blue Devils took. Unlike their usual strong performance at the 3-point line, the Tar Heels held Duke to an abysmal 4-of-22 3-point mark with airballs not uncommon amongst those 22 attempts. The physicality of the North Carolina players also led to numerous travel calls and inbound steals from the Blue Devils, demoralizing the Blue Devils with 16 total turnovers.
It wasn’t any better on defense for the Blue Devils where foul calls and missed rebounds allowed North Carolina (23-5, 13-5) to take 75 total shots in the game compared to Duke’s 55. Throughout defensive stretches, eight out of 10 Duke players committed a foul or more, sending North Carolina to the free throw 17 times which they were able to convert into 10 points. As for rebounds, Duke only grabbed 35 rebounds the whole game compared to the Tar Heels' 51. Alarmingly, of the 51 rebounds, North Carolina had 20 offensive rebounds which came more from their guards’ hustles than their taller forwards. Such out-hustled plays shattered Duke—displacing the team beyond repair until the final buzzer.
“We’ve just got to get back and try to play more disciplined and try to follow the game plan and stay within our schemes. When we deviate from the game plan and the schemes, it doesn’t go up for us. So what we need is just more connectivity on the defensive end—match up, know who we are guarding, and then play a higher level of defense,” said Lawson. “We’ve got to be a higher-level defensive team to keep teams out of the paint.”
While the second half was just a continuation of the first, Taylor tried to lead a comeback with her 14 points, 6 rebounds, two assists and one block—ultimately having the team-highs in points and assists. When Duke seemed lost on the court, Taylor was the light that sparked the team’s short bursts of defensive and offensive productions. The junior guard could be seen controlling the offensive pace for the team to find themselves in the flow of the game as well as providing feedback to her teammates during the brief transition pauses after a foul. Her leadership on the court was invaluable in a game like today, and such an asset is something for Cameron Crazies to look forward to at the ACC tournament.
“We came in wanting to win, wanting to play well together. At the end of the day, all of our goals are to win a national championship. But you have to take the steps before that. So our next goal is the next game—just focusing on winning the next game, taking it step-by-step, pushing ourselves and growing together,” said Taylor.
Hence, despite a difficult fight to close off the regular season, the Blue Devils look to grow from this loss and go to Greensboro, N.C., with one goal in mind—to win it all. Duke will look to return to its earlier season form in its next matchup at the ACC tournament Wednesday against Pittsburgh.
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