Duke is flying high, and in its next matchup against its historic rival, it is ready to soar.
As one of the nation’s top 15 teams, the Blue Devils have made a mark for themselves this season. The group started the year unranked and has done nothing less than spread its wings since day one. Duke (16-1, 6-0 in the ACC) upset then-No. 6 N.C. State in December and has continued to show improvement. Now, as the ACC leader, it is the team to defeat.
After a 65-47 win Sunday against Georgia Tech, the 13th-ranked Blue Devils return to action Thursday with a high-stakes game against rival North Carolina. Duke is riding the high of one of its best-ever starts, with just one loss thus far against then-No. 3 UConn. On the flip side, No. 17 North Carolina stands at 12-5 after a four-game losing streak in December and the start of January. But the Tar Heels’ record should deceive nobody considering that the team has found its footing in its past few matchups, with victories against No. 7 Notre Dame and then-No. 11 N.C. State.
Before the Blue Devils take the drive down Tobacco Road to Carmichael Arena, here are five things to know.
The last time the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels competed on the hardwood, there was no happy ending for the darker shade of blue. Ahead of last year's first Duke-North Carolina game, both teams had relatively equal records and scrappy losses to a top-tier N.C. State team. However, in matchups at both home bases, North Carolina was the better team, beating Duke 78-62, then 74-46.
A year later, a lot has changed for Duke, which has already beaten four teams that it lost to last year after just six ACC games. The Blue Devils return with three key players on their current squad who were instrumental against the Tar Heels last year: Celeste Taylor, Shayeann Day-Wilson and Elizabeth Balogun. Each player from the trio contributed 10 points or more in at least one of the two North Carolina games.
This season, the returning guard trio are among Duke's top five scorers and rebounders, but they are not in the fight alone. The Blue Devils are armed with the talents of a handful of transfers and freshmen who have each played a role in the squad's continued success. With talent on both sides of the ball, Duke is in position for a rivalry win to extend its 11-game winning streak.
The game may still be a day away, but fans of each respective side of the rivalry are already picking their lucky jerseys off the hangers. Per StubHub, less than 1% of total tickets at Carmichael Arena are available for purchase, which means a sold-out game may be on the horizon. North Carolina's most recent contest, a nine-point win at home against the Wolfpack, hosted a sold-out 6,319-person crowd for the first time since 2015.
Though the Duke-North Carolina game may be a different situation, if the crowd sells out again, it will surely be a high-pressure atmosphere for the Blue Devils. Given this installment of the rivalry has talent on both sides, the game can go either way in that environment.
Duke is ranked again for the first time since January 2022, and so is North Carolina. Though the Tar Heels started the season at No. 12, the team's ranking has fluctuated throughout the season, with a peak at No. 6 in Weeks 4 and 7. The Blue Devils entered the AP Poll in Week 9, debuting at No. 19. But after double-digit victories against Wake Forest, Clemson and Georgia Tech, the latest poll has awarded Duke the No. 13 spot.
North Carolina’s fall in the rankings comes after four consecutive losses to Michigan, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami. Despite the unsuccessful period, the Tar Heels are hardly an unsuccessful team. North Carolina has since tallied three victories against Notre Dame, Virginia and N.C. State. The Cavaliers and the Wolfpack are teams that the Blue Devils also toppled, whereas Notre Dame, a top-10 team itself, is the only one of those teams that Duke has not battled yet.
Like Duke, North Carolina’s backcourt runs the show. Equipped with the dangerous junior-guard trio of Deja Kelly, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Alyssa Ustby, the Tar Heels are a formidable opponent. The three players lead the team in scoring, with Kelly averaging 15.9 points per game, Todd-Williams averaging 13.9 and Ustby averaging 13.5. Ustby is a defensive weapon not to be looked past, as the Rochester, Minn., native contributes 9.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks per game.
It is not atypical for the Tar Heels to have either Kelly or Todd-Williams drop upward of 20 points against a ranked team—Kelly scored 29 points against then-No. 5 Iowa State and Todd-Williams contributed 20 points against then-No. 5 Indiana.
“They are core pieces. ... They have all played together for three years at the same school, in the same system,” Duke head coach Kara Lawson said of North Carolina’s backcourt Tuesday.
“Continuity is the greatest superpower that you can have as a college basketball program right now, on the men’s or women’s side. It is having your players there together, not just having experience, but having continuity. It is very valuable.”
Playing against a seasoned defense that has built chemistry together over the course of years, the Blue Devils confront one of their biggest questions thus far: whether their own assortment of transfers and returners can play as if they have been teammates for years.
Taylor up top
Lawson and the Blue Devils’ answer to North Carolina’s talented defense may lie in their top player—senior Celeste Taylor. The 5-foot-11 guard is a threat to any ACC team, and for good reason. The Valley Stream, N.Y., native not only has the ball-handling skills to lead Duke, but she is unstoppable on defense.
“She had two blocks in the Wake Forest game that were unbelievable,” said Lawson of Taylor. “One was in the first half, one was in the second half. A guard. She just imposes her will on people defensively. And it’s been amazing to watch—sit there and marvel. She never gets screened. You know how hard it is as a guard to never get screened?”
The Wake Forest game was hardly her only showing of talent lately, as in Duke's two most recent contests—against Clemson and Georgia Tech—the senior collected seven total steals and three blocks. Taylor has proven her consistency, as she also leads the team in points per game at 12.9 and steals per game at 2.3.
North Carolina may have more losses than Duke, but it has offensive strength on its side. The team averages 73.9 points per game to Duke's 69.9, and its three top players each have higher scoring averages than Taylor. The Blue Devils need strong backcourt play to challenge North Carolina, and Taylor's background as a veteran and leader is ready to take up that challenge.
“Have y’all seen her play defense? Seriously? Have you watched her play? Because you can see all this stuff,” Lawson said. “She’s so good in every area defensively, I don't think there's a better perimeter defender in the country than Celeste [Taylor]. And she can guard anybody.”
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