Duke was so close. And now, the conference title is nothing but a dream for next season.
The 11th-ranked Blue Devils fell 45-41 Sunday afternoon to No. 22 North Carolina in a high-stakes, turnover-filled regular-season finale that ended with a 16-5 Tar Heel run. The loss is Duke’s first in Cameron Indoor Stadium this season and steals its chance to claim an ACC title. With Notre Dame topping Louisville 68-65 just moments following the conclusion in Durham, the Fighting Irish will end the season alone atop the ACC — a position held by Duke for so much of the season, now gone at the hands of its greatest rival.
“Coming up short is disappointing,” head coach Kara Lawson said after the game. “I can’t wax poetic about it. It’s disappointing and it stinks — you know, not playing as well as we could have is one of the things that’s disappointing.”
But while North Carolina eventually denied Duke its glory, the path there was not glorious. The Tar Heel faithful have come to expect a downpour by star guard Deja Kelly, and Duke fans have lived for unbelievable shots by Duke’s Shayeann Day-Wilson. Instead, turnovers plagued the day for both teams, and it quickly became a contest not of who could shine brighter, but who could keep from burning out more. Duke (24-5, 14-4 in the ACC) notched a season-high 25 turnovers, marking arguably its sloppiest performance of the season, while the Tar Heels committed 21 turnovers of their own.
“To credit [North Carolina], I thought they were very disruptive defensively. Some of it was us not being on the same page offensively, like one player running one play and other players running another play,” Lawson said. “And some of it was poor decision-making — like everyone’s running the right play, but a player makes an error in judgment to throw a ball that maybe they shouldn’t try to thread a needle on, or it's an inaccurate pass.”
A 7-0 scoring run to open the fourth quarter, though, was not enough for Duke. It simply needed to keep the Tar Heels (20-9, 11-7) in check, which it did at first. Kelly had few open looks, and it was her uncharacteristically low nine points and a game-high 12 points by Duke’s Elizabeth Balogun that might have sealed the deal for the Blue Devils.
But the fouls for Duke began to trickle upward in the waning minutes, and Paulina Paris made four straight free throws to cut the Blue Devil lead to 36-35. Cue a 5-0 run by Kennedy Todd-Williams, and the crowd knew. Duke — in its season of resurgence, on its Senior Day, during its chance for a championship — had been doomed by the Tar Heels for the second time in a single season.
“When a game stays low-scoring, giving them double-digit points on the line when they were struggling to score against our defense — that’s probably, you know, the number two factor looking at factors right now. It’s the turnovers, then the free throws,” Lawson said. North Carolina shot 12-of-15 from the charity stripe.
The opening possessions were tighter than when the two teams last danced in Chapel Hill. Though North Carolina did not open on a 10-0 run again Sunday, it still looked like a lack of poise was bound to repeat history for the Blue Devils. The teams exchanged single-digit runs, and North Carolina eventually exited the second quarter with eight points and eight turnovers. Ultimately, the tides changed from Carolina to Duke Blue, and it was Duke this time which ended the first quarter on a 9-2 run and entered the half with a 20-16 lead, with the help of graduate center Mia Heide off the bench.
Duke never lost the lead until the third quarter, when juniors Alyssa Ustby and Anya Poole found a rhythm to light up North Carolina’s transition offense. The visitors took a 25-23 lead, and “Tar Heels” chants started to ring throughout a sold-out Cameron Indoor as Duke was forced to burn a timeout after a string of offensive fouls.
Cameron Indoor is typically supposed to be the toughest road game, but the Tar Heels began to look more settled, and it took Duke a few extra minutes to get through a string of possessions without a turnover. Junior guard Vanessa de Jesus was a necessary spark for Duke, with her six third-quarter points keeping Duke steady to enter the fourth tied 29-29.
A low-scoring affair, Duke gave North Carolina no open space past halfcourt in the early going, limiting the Tar Heels to a few desperate jumpers to round out the first quarter. The Tar Heel trio of Kelly, Ustby and Todd-Williams all entered averaging double-digit points; they combined for six in the first half. Junior center Kennedy Brown, at 6-foot-6, won the height advantage, forcing a string of uncharacteristic travels by rendering sophomore wing Destiny Adams a non-option in the paint.
“All of our frontcourt players, we needed them to defensively be strong and people we can count on,” Lawson said. “I thought [graduate forward Taya Corosdale] rebounded well and did a good job defensively for most of the game. … [Brown] did such a good job for us defensively, being in centerfield, just being present at 6-foot-6 in the lane.”
For Duke, it was also a matter of missed shots. The Tar Heels’ man defense, though consistent, was not suffocating, and Duke often found itself with time to shoot — unsuccessfully. Duke ended the first half shooting 8-for-30 from the field, as even layups started to trickle out of the basket. Transition offense has been the name of the game for Lawson all season, but as passes ended up flying behind the baseline, Duke had to rely on midrange sharpshooter Balogun, who sank seven of Duke’s 20 first-half points.
“What determined the game was our inability to take care of the basketball and make shots late,” Lawson said. “They made shots late, and we didn’t. I think we had three threes go in and out that fourth quarter — good looks that just rattled in and out.”
With the regular season complete, Duke now looks toward the ACC tournament, which begins Wednesday. The Blue Devils will travel to Greensboro, N.C., Friday to start play after a double bye as the No. 2 seed.
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.