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5 things to know before Duke women's basketball meets North Carolina with ACC title on the line

Sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson (30) in Duke's Thursday win against N.C. State.
Sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson (30) in Duke's Thursday win against N.C. State.

In the famed Tobacco Road rivalry, it is often said that all bets are off. It matters not what kind of season each team has had, where they rank in the AP Poll or how many stars each team has.

That being said, the talent present on these two teams will make what is already guaranteed to be an excellent game Sunday afternoon that much better. The 11th-ranked Blue Devils come in hoping to finish out an undefeated season at home, and the 22nd-ranked Tar Heels surely look forward gleefully, as they have many times before, to the prospect of raining on Duke’s parade.

In the Chapel Hill portion of this year’s series, Duke lost 61-56. Now, as the series returns to Durham, the Blue Devils will be looking to avenge that defeat and clinch a share of a conference title. Here are five things to know for Sunday’s noon matchup between two of the best teams in the ACC. 

Deja vu

One of the most potent weapons in North Carolina’s attack this year has been junior guard Deja Kelly. Kelly, who averages 16.7 points per game and scored an impressive 19 against the Blue Devils earlier this year, is a menace on both ends of the floor, averaging 1.2 steals and 3.3 assists. Coming into Sunday, she will aim to replicate her performance from earlier this year. Defensive responsibility in guarding Kelly will likely be shared between guards Shayeann Day-Wilson and Celeste Taylor, who will need to stay in front of Kelly at all times if they are to stop her.

On the defensive end, Kelly is everywhere. She is a quick and agile defender capable of containing just about anyone. As such, the Blue Devils will need to utilize screens and designed plays to force the pesky guard off of Duke’s scoring talent, giving players like Taylor the opportunity to get away from larger, slower defenders.

Tuning out the noise

The first leg of this season’s matchup was a loud one. Almost every single seat in Chapel Hill’s 6,822-person Carmichael Arena was filled, and it made for a hostile environment for the Blue Devils. Come Sunday in Durham, the roles will be reversed. Cameron Indoor Stadium is even bigger than Carmichael, and while it likely will not be completely full, it will certainly be loud — Duke’s Thursday win against N.C. State drew a large crowd.

The Blue Devils will aim to channel that crowd energy into their performance Sunday, while the Tar Heels will need to do everything they can to keep the Cameron Crazies out of their heads. This will be particularly important at the free throw line, where the Blue Devils struggled against North Carolina last time with a 12-of-18 clip. 

“[Cameron Indoor] has been great this whole season,” said Taylor after Thursday's win against the Wolfpack. “It's just a great environment to play in, just one that you think about when you play college basketball.”

Taylor’s revenge

Taylor struggled in the previous matchup against the Tar Heels, shooting just 1-of-6 from the field and scoring only two points. On Sunday, she will look to come back in a big way. Taylor has been on fire as of late: In her most recent appearance, she scored a game-high 21 points against N.C. State. 

Against the rival Tar Heels, Taylor will be on her home turf with a friendly crowd and more experience in big games. She does not have to explode, but the Blue Devils will be looking at her to run the floor, put up transition buckets and play good defense against Kelly and her backcourt partner, Alyssa Ustby.

“Celeste just wins, she makes winning plays,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson after Thursday’s game. “She's a non-traditional star on a non-traditional team.”

Day-Wilson’s day

In her last outing against the Tar Heels, the leading scorer for either team was Day-Wilson. She scored an impressive 24 points, shooting 7-of-11 from the field and 7-of-13 from the line. The sophomore kept Duke in the game down the stretch, pulling up for clutch threes and driving into the paint. Her second-half performance was the reason that the previous matchup was so close despite a lackluster showing from Taylor and the Blue Devil offense. While she has not scored in double digits in her last six games, this game has the potential to be a breakthrough. 

Look for a big game from Day-Wilson, who proved that she could score in a big way last time she faced the Tar Heels. Sunday will likely bring more of the same agile passing, scoring and ball-handling that can be expected from the Toronto native.

Ignoring the hype

While this is obviously a big game in a historic rivalry, the implications in terms of the postseason are not huge aside from Duke's race with Notre Dame for the conference crown. The Blue Devils have already clinched a double bye in the ACC tournament, and this game probably will not have huge implications for NCAA tournament seeding. The fact of the matter is that both of these teams have earned spots in the NCAA tournament and will be looking to make deep runs. 

Ultimately, Duke needs to relax and play the same game it has played all year. Hard-nosed defense, a suffocating full-court press and quick transition buckets with creative sets will be key. If the Blue Devils can control the pace of the game and enforce their style of play, this is a winnable game, and Lawson’s squad may well walk away as ACC champions. 


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