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‘We’ll have to be ready’: Mapping out Duke women’s basketball’s path to a title at ACC tournament

Junior center Kennedy Brown (21) in Duke's Jan. 15 win at Georgia Tech.
Junior center Kennedy Brown (21) in Duke's Jan. 15 win at Georgia Tech.

The ACC is the most loaded conference in Division I women’s basketball. ESPN’s newest Bracketology projection had the conference sending nine teams to the NCAA tournament, and there are currently four squads ranked in the AP Top 25. Given the talent and depth of the conference this year, No. 13 Duke will have a difficult path in its search for its first conference tournament title since 2013. The Blue Devils may very well face nationally ranked teams in all three of their ACC tournament games.

The Blue Devils are coming into the competition as the No. 2 seed, meaning that they, along with Notre Dame (1), Virginia Tech (3) and Louisville (4), will enjoy a double-bye to open the tournament. Duke’s first tournament game will be in the quarterfinals Friday evening, when it will face off against one of No. 10-seed Clemson, No. 15-seed Pittsburgh or No. 7-seed North Carolina. Given the relative strengths of those three teams, the most likely outcome appears to be a quarterfinal rematch against No. 18 North Carolina. That being said, there is the distinct possibility that the Tigers or the Panthers pull out a few upsets and end up making it to the quarterfinals.

“We'll be focused on whoever wins the Wednesday game and then whoever wins the Thursday game,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson during a Monday media availability. “We'll get to it knowing that every team we play in this tournament, it'll be a second or third time that we match up with them and we'll have to be ready to make adjustments.”

Let’s take a look at what seems to be the most likely scenario, in which North Carolina makes it to the quarterfinals. The Tar Heels are the only team this season to beat the Blue Devils (24-5, 14-4 in the ACC) twice. The first of those victories came in January, when North Carolina hosted Duke in Carmichael Arena and held on to win 61-56. The second came Sunday, when the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils again in Durham, this time 45-41 in a low-scoring regular-season finale. 

Now, the two rivals will likely look to gear up for a third matchup. While North Carolina took the first two of the series, the stakes in this game will be much higher. The loser goes home, at least until the NCAA tournament starts up.

Despite holding the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament, the Tar Heels have been one of the better teams in the league. Their relatively low seed is in part due to injuries that the team has battled, as star forward Alyssa Ustby and Eva Hodgson, the team’s most efficient 3-point shooter, both missed time. Now that the team is back and fully healthy, the Tar Heels may be a force to be reckoned with. Fans got a glimpse of that Sunday in North Carolina’s win at Duke. 

“If we do see them again, we'll have to play well,” said Lawson after Sunday’s game. "We'll just have to be a better version of ourselves. We’ve got a couple days to try and get there.”

If Duke manages to pull off a win in the quarterfinals against any one of those three teams, the Blue Devils will play one of Miami, No. 8 Virginia Tech, Boston College or Georgia Tech. Despite being the No. 3 seed in the tournament, Virginia Tech is the highest in the national rankings. Duke met the Hokies twice in the regular season, winning the first 66-55 at home and dropping the second 61-45 in Blacksburg, Va., to split the series. In what would be the rubber match, the stakes would be higher than either of the regular-season games.

The name to know for Virginia Tech is Elizabeth Kitley. The 6-foot-6 senior forward is the reigning ACC Player of the Year and a consensus first-round WNBA draft pick. Kitley is arguably the best post player in the conference right now, leading the ACC in both rebounds per game (10.7) and blocks per game (2.3). Duke can win this game if it limits her scoring: In its victory against the Hokies in January, Kitley had just four points on 1-of-9 shooting. In Duke’s blowout loss, she dropped 20

If Duke manages to win what would be a toss-up against the Hokies, its most likely opponent in the tournament final will be No. 10 Notre Dame. The Blue Devils faced off against the Fighting Irish in early February, prevailing 57-52 to move into sole possession of first place for a time. If the two teams do meet in the final, it will be the biggest challenge yet for the Blue Devils. The Fighting Irish are led by a powerful guard duo in Sonia Citron and Olivia Miles, who average a combined 28.8 points per game. 

Ultimately, these are all hypotheticals. Duke will need to take this tournament one game at a time and take solace in knowing that regardless of the outcome, this likely will not be the end of its season. The Blue Devils will likely see teams of the same caliber when the NCAA tournament rolls around in March.

“Hopefully we can take some of that regular-season momentum and win a game in the postseason,” said Lawson. “You'd like to win more than one but you can't win more than one before you win one. Our focus is just on Friday and whoever the opponent is and see if we can get a postseason win.”


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