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THIRD TIME'S A CHARM: Duke women's basketball downs North Carolina to reach ACC tournament semifinals

Shayeann Day-Wilson celebrates during the second half of Duke's come-from-behind win Friday against North Carolina.
Shayeann Day-Wilson celebrates during the second half of Duke's come-from-behind win Friday against North Carolina.

GREENSBORO, N.C.—It took less than a week for the Blue Devils to turn around and take revenge on the Tar Heels, proving that old adage — the third time really is a charm.

The Tobacco Road rivalry was reignited once again when No. 2-seed Duke took on No. 7-seed North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament Friday evening. The Tar Heels spent their second night in the Greensboro Coliseum after defeating Clemson in round two of the tournament Thursday, while the Blue Devils, coming out of a double-bye, tested out the court for the first time. Fresh from their days off, Duke managed to slide by North Carolina 44-40 to earn a one-way ticket to Saturday afternoon’s semifinal.

“That's how these games go. It comes down to the end. We've seen it all across our league all year. You see it all across the country,” said head coach Kara Lawson after the game.

With just under nine minutes left in the game, a jump shot from senior guard Celeste Taylor tied the score at 36-36. It was like the last half-hour of play had never happened: Duke and North Carolina were back at square one.

“I think our want was really there today, especially defensively, even when our shots weren't falling,” said Taylor after the game. “We wanted it more.”

Junior forward Anya Poole snagged a layup to give the Tar Heels a 40-38 lead with 4:13 left, and Duke followed it up two minutes later with a Reigan Richardson jump shot. Less than 60 seconds passed before senior wing Elizabeth Balogun knocked down two shots from the charity stripe but then missed a layup on Duke’s next possession. Down to the frayed ends of the wire, the game stayed up in the air.

A media timeout stopped the action with 31.6 seconds left and Duke leading 42-40. Just an instant later, sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson stepped up to the free throw line to shoot and banked in her second attempt. All that was left for the Blue Devils was to bring out their stalwart defense and prevent a Tar Heel three.

North Carolina shot three times on the next possession and missed every time, with Richardson cleanly blocking Kennedy Todd-Williams’ 3-point attempt to seal the deal. The final buzzer sounded shortly after, and Duke took the game.

“Fight until the buzzer goes off,” said Taylor.

After exiting a rough first half trailing 24-19, the Blue Devils stepped back onto the court for the second half apparently more cool, more calculated. Duke used a Balogun three and a Day-Wilson elbow jumper to close what was once a nine-point deficit to a more manageable four-point gap. But as Duke improved its play, North Carolina refused to lose steam — the Tar Heels continued to pass effectively around the Blue Devil defense, holding on to lead 36-34 after the third quarter.

Just when Duke threatened to take the lead for the first time since the first quarter, cutting North Carolina’s advantage to 32-31, junior guard Deja Kelly put in a layup to protect the Tar Heel lead — for a moment. Duke finally tied the score at 34-34 with a quick layup from graduate center Mia Heide off of a missed free throw by Taylor, but right before the penultimate quarter buzzed to a close, the Tar Heels took back the advantage with a pull-up jumper by junior guard Alyssa Ustby.

“It looked like a playoff game,” said Lawson. “That's how it is when it's close and you have two teams that are really competitive and fighting for something that they want.”

The first quarter was nothing short of ruthless. The two teams were scrappy, restricting each other with aggressive defense that meant low scoring on both sides. Duke’s offensive energy came largely as a combined effort from junior guards Vanessa de Jesus and Jordyn Oliver, who pushed the ball towards North Carolina’s basket and set the Blue Devils up for open looks. 

Neither guard, however, was able to make much of an impact — Duke only tallied nine points in the first quarter, barely slipping by an eight-point total from the Tar Heels. Nearly impossible to stop was Kelly, who led the Tar Heels with nine points in the first half — although she finished just 4-of-22 from the field.

In the second quarter, the junior duo handed things over to Day-Wilson. In between a pair of deep jumpers from the Tar Heels, Day-Wilson set up junior center Kennedy Brown for a turnaround shot in the paint to keep the Blue Devils in the winning conversation.

By the time Duke rounded off the half down five points, it was clear that energy would not be enough — the Blue Devils would need precision. So it was precision that brought the Blue Devils back in the second half, and later it was steady effort that ultimately sealed the deal in their favor.

“Every game we've lost this year we've won the next one,” noted Lawson. “Every single one. And I just trusted in that.”

The landmark victory comes just after Duke’s first home loss Sunday, when it fell to North Carolina 45-41 for the second time in the regular season. With a shot at Blue Devil revenge, Lawson’s team made the most of it Friday evening.

“We didn't need conservative, we needed attacking, but we just needed to be more mindful when we were attacking,” said Lawson.

In fact, they made up for their last game the same way they lost it, pulling out the win by a thin four-point margin. The battle was low-scoring and as tenuous as most in the rivalry, with the Blue Devils giving the Tar Heels a taste of their own medicine.

“I think it’s a hunger,” added Taylor.” I think it's the players that coach recruited to come here, the character that each player has, and … the will to win and fight.”

The Blue Devils will return Saturday afternoon to take on No. 3-seed Virginia Tech in the tournament semifinal. The Hokies raced past No. 6-seed Miami 68-42 Friday night and split the season series with Duke.


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