It’s finally tournament time in the ACC, as No. 10 Duke makes the short trip to the Greensboro Coliseum to take on No. 15 seed Pittsburgh in the first round at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. Here are five things to know before the Blue Devils, at long last, return to the postseason slate.
Many expected 2021-22 to be yet another illustration of just how dominant the ACC is in women’s hoops. Suffice to say, they were right.
Heading into the conference tournament this week in Greensboro, N.C., six slots in the AP Poll are occupied by ACC members: N.C. State (No. 3), Louisville (No. 4), North Carolina (No. 16), Notre Dame (No. 20), Virginia Tech (No. 21) and Georgia Tech (No. 25). The first two have national title hopes, while the other four are strong contenders to make the second weekend of March Madness.
At the beginning of the year, Duke was expected to fit in the latter mix. Nobody was expecting these Blue Devils, in just their second season with head coach Kara Lawson at the reins, to challenge the Wolfpack and Cardinals for the conference crown, but they were certainly expected to be in an amongst the other few and bring themselves into March with a resumé roughly equal.
Evidently, this is not and will not be the case, but much of that credit must go to the rest of the ACC. Duke’s opponents won the games they needed to when they needed to. There are genuinely six candidates for a deep run in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, and any team tasked with toppling the other will have a daunting task ahead of it.
Though Sunday's visit to Chapel Hill is one the Blue Devils will likely hope to quickly forget, it was one to remember for junior guard Celeste Taylor.
The Texas transfer was arguably Duke’s most impressive player this season prior to an undisclosed shoulder injury in January’s trip to Syracuse. Before that game, Taylor was averaging 12.2 points per game in 12 appearances.
This included a 21-point display in a close win against Alabama, 17 points against then-No. 9 Iowa and 12 points against a Notre Dame team that’s been in and amongst the top 25 all season. While Taylor was healthy and firing on all cylinders, the Blue Devils went 10-2 and were comfortably in the ACC and national mix.
But without her, that early season spunk began to unravel.
Since that injury sidelined Taylor for almost a month, Duke has gone a much less imposing 5-10. The most recent episode was that 28-point thumping at the Carmichael Arena against North Carolina, but Taylor still had a night to remember—posting a team-high 14 points and two assists.
She’s an x-factor when healthy and a threat when consistent, and despite Sunday’s disappointing final score, it seems like the stars are realigning to make both true once again.
If so, Taylor will be a handful for Pitt in Greensboro.
It’s been a tough season for the bottom-dwelling Panthers, posting just two conference wins all year and dealing with an over month-long losing streak. Lost at sea and obscured by the fog of high expectations in a packed ACC, there’s been a solitary lighthouse for this stranded Pittsburgh team: Dayshanette Harris.
The junior guard has been a consistently high-performing piece of a consistently poor-performing Pittsburgh squad, notching a respectable 9.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Though she didn’t make the scoresheet in last week’s showdown with Florida State, she put up 16 in the Panthers’ visit to fellow cellar dwellers Virginia and double digits in each of Pittsburgh’s defeats against Boston College and North Carolina.
When her team needs points, she pulls through and gets them. When her team has a down game, she has a solid performance. As it has been for many games for the Panthers this year, Harris will likely be head coach Lance White’s biggest offensive outlet against Duke, and Pittsburgh’s greatest hope if it wishes to avenge last month’s defeat against the Blue Devils.
Back against the ‘Burgh
The last time these two teams squared off, it was a 15-point defensive edge-out by the Blue Devils in the Steel City. It was ugly, but it was effective, and come tournament time, effective is all that matters.
Duke was never really in danger of losing the last contest in Pennsylvania despite inefficient shooting and slippery hands—the Blue Devils posted just a 35% mark from the floor and committed 18 total turnovers.
Fortunately for Duke, though, Pittsburgh had a poor day of its own, going 23.1% from the field with 15 turnovers. They say the mark of the best teams is winning when the going gets rough, and though the Blue Devils certainly aren’t one of the country’s best teams, last month’s visit to the Keystone State followed this old adage and resulted in another addition to the win tally.
Chances are high they do that again Wednesday. The Panthers are winless since an overtime triumph over Clemson Jan. 27 and enter the ACC Tournament joint-last in the conference, low on confidence and even lower in momentum.
If there’s any game to snap this late-season funk for the Blue Devils, the first round matchup is a prime candidate.
Say it quietly, but Duke may have found itself a lucky break.
When the ACC tournament draw was announced, the Blue Devils were likely hopeful that they could reach the quarterfinals. First up is Pittsburgh, then No. 7 seed Miami—who the Blue Devils also dispatched in Coral Gables, Fla., after an early-season COVID-19 postponement.
Of all the paths that Lawson’s team could have drawn in its pursuit of a final victorious hurrah, this one perhaps presents the most potential for an early-week run, as it comes against two squads it has already dispelled.
At this point, anything further than the quarterfinals is likely a pipe dream, but it finally seems like there’s a clear route for Duke to post a winning end to a difficult year.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.