CHAPEL HILL—The biggest rivalry in college basketball is back in the women’s game.
The 13th-ranked Blue Devils fell to No. 17 North Carolina at Carmichael Arena 61-56 Thursday night in the first highly competitive game in the rivalry in more than three seasons. After rendering last year’s series uncompetitive from start to finish, the Tar Heels threatened to continue that trend with a 10-0 opening to this game. The Blue Devils tied the game by the mid-second quarter, and the teams traded small leads through the mid-third before North Carolina pulled off a 9-0 run to close that quarter. Though Duke came within a couple of possessions in the waning minutes multiple times, the Tar Heels kept pace to set their third-longest win streak in the last 25 years of the rivalry and hand the Blue Devils their first ACC loss this season.
Point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson led Duke with 24 points on 7-of-11 from the field and 7-of-13 from the line, and off-ball guard Reigan Richardson notched 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting. North Carolina was led by combo guard Deja Kelly’s 19 points on 6-of-15 shooting, three assists and three steals.
“I thought we didn’t panic, even though it took us a while to score to start the game,” said Blue Devil head coach Kara Lawson. “I thought our defense held us in it … Was it like eight minutes to open the game [before scoring], something like that? It felt like forever. I thought we were in pretty good shape to be tied after a start like that. They (the Blue Devils) fight. They wanted to win, and it's hard to win on the road in this league.”
The teams went into halftime tied at 21 but traded single-digit scoring runs through the mid-third quarter. Both teams’ fans got only more energized as Duke (16-2, 6-1 in the ACC) and North Carolina (13-5, 4-3) went back and forth. But when the Blue Devils went to their bench at the media timeout, the floodgates broke open: The Tar Heels went on a 9-0 run to go up 40-31, and the home crowd reached deafening levels.
As North Carolina’s lead ballooned, Duke did not fall apart offensively—it still played within its structure and found what good shots were available, those shots simply did not fall. The Blue Devils’ defense showed cracks, though. Where they had built a smothering blanket in the middle periods of the game, they stopped consistently playing 30 straight seconds of quality defense. The Tar Heels shot 60.0% in the fourth quarter, forced into long possessions by Duke but getting quality looks on late-clock drives or kick-outs.
The Blue Devils’ defense tightened up as the fourth wore on, allowing Day-Wilson and Richardson to power them back within a couple of possessions. For the quarter, those two combined for 17 points on 5-of-7 from the field and 6-of-10 from the line through the 0:30 mark, but the rest of the team missed all six of its attempts to that point, and North Carolina found a bucket in response each time.
“It’s Duke—I think all of us were [playing with an extra edge],” said Kelly. “We all knew how big this game was for us, for Carolina fans, and we just wanted to give the fans that we brought a show. It definitely meant a lot more.”
A Duke-North Carolina matchup is always expected to be physical, and physical is how this game opened. The referees gave both teams leeway on reach-ins and shot contests through the first 2:30, but the whistle tightened for the Blue Devils after, as they earned seven fouls from the 7:10 mark through the end of the quarter. Duke freshman Ashlon Jackson in particular was called for a pair of questionable charges, one of which prevented an and-one that would have brought Duke within one possession of the Tar Heels.
The Blue Devils committed eight fouls and eight turnovers in the first quarter while missing eight shots, for a bit of symmetry. They found their rhythm after the quarter break, though, getting excellent defensive minutes from bench players Jordyn Oliver and Taya Corosdale to help lead their comeback. With North Carolina’s anemic offense only scoring 12 points in the first quarter, it didn’t matter that Duke took 7:53 to get on the board; all it took was a 16-6 Blue Devil run from the mid-first quarter through the mid-second to tie the game up at 21-21 at the half.
The key for Lawson was upping the size of the Blue Devils’ lineups. Where Duke had opened with just one starter over 6-foot-1, it closed the final 5:29 of the first half with a two-big lineup with Corosdale at the four and Kennedy Brown at the five. Despite the Blue Devils having played just 72 minutes with those two together this season, they played 558 concurrent minutes last year at Oregon State, per CBB Analytics. Duke outscored the Tar Heels by four in the duo’s first-half minutes together.
While the two bigs and wing defense were the foundation of the Blue Devils’ early comeback, the facing was Day-Wilson. The sophomore point guard scored 10 points on a perfect 4-of-4 from the field from the start of the second quarter through the early third while more than holding her own defensively.
“[Day-Wilson] is a big-game player,” said Lawson. “It’s good to see that she was able to [have a good offensive night]. And hopefully that gives her more confidence, because she is a big scoring threat when she’s aggressive.”
The Blue Devils have a chance to keep pace atop the ACC Sunday at 12 p.m., when they welcome Syracuse to Cameron Indoor Stadium.
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