Duke welcomes hometown rival North Carolina to Cameron Indoor Stadium Sunday afternoon for their first showdown of the season. Before the 2 p.m. tipoff, The Chronicle’s beat writers are here to offer their predictions about how the Blue Devils will fare:
Caleb Dudley: Duke 60-54
Duke has shown its capability to hang with and beat top teams all season long, and I think this continues against its archrival. This has rang even more true during this campaign when the Blue Devils play at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where they are 11-2 this season. This mark includes monster wins against ranked opponents Virginia Tech and Florida State, and the Tar Heels will be a similar challenge. North Carolina is led by standouts Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby, but they will be tasked with trying to overcome a Duke defensive unit, anchored by senior center Kennedy Brown, that is the best in the conference in points allowed. With a sold-out crowd Sunday, I think the Cameron Crazies will be the deciding factor that pushes head coach Kara Lawson’s squad to a win and possibly a spot in the AP Poll.
Luke Jovanovic: North Carolina 65-60
While North Carolina enters the contest on a three-game skid (two of its losses being against tough ranked opponents, the other on the road at Virginia), the Tar Heels can score the ball, averaging 69.8 points per game. The guard trio of Kelly Alyssa Ustby and Lexi Donarski, each averaging double-digit points, has led the Tar Heels past then-No. 16 Notre Dame and then-No. 13 Louisville. On the other hand, Duke enters the contest with victories in three of its last four contests. However, the Blue Devils are personified by inconsistency: One day they blow out then-No. 23 Florida State by 42 (a team that beat North Carolina by eight), and the next they lose to struggling Miami. The question then becomes which group will show up for Duke — the group that scored nearly 50 points in the second half against Wake Forest and held its opponents to five points in the third quarter, or the group that allowed those same Demon Deacons to lead by 13 points after the first quarter? Inconsistency gets punished in a conference as tough as the ACC is, and for that reason I believe North Carolina gets back in the win column.
Ryan Hamner: Duke 62-57
The Blue Devils’ ACC schedule is far from a cakewalk, and North Carolina is the next test on that slate. However, the Tar Heels come to town in the midst of an eight-game Duke home win streak. The Blue Devils are coming off a massive win against Wake Forest in which they showed their ability to come from behind. The home team may need to do that again Sunday, as North Carolina is playing more predictably and comes in slightly stronger than Duke. This is a key matchup for the Blue Devils, one with potential postseason implications, and it will be necessary for the team to put its best form forward to get the win. With the home crowd and momentum on its side, I think Duke does just that.
Garrett Spooner: Duke 55-48
If we know anything about this Duke team, it's that it can really defend. In their last outing, the Blue Devils held a struggling Wake Forest team to five total points in the third quarter and 46 points after all four. Lawson’s squad prides itself on its defense, and Duke will need to lock down a North Carolina squad that has shown it can score, most notably in a 79-point upset victory against then-No. 13 Louisville. For the Blue Devils, Ashlon Jackson is the X-Factor, as she enters the game averaging 8.9 points per contest, fourth-highest on the team. To take down the Tar Heels, Jackson will need to contribute on both ends of the floor, including knocking down a couple triples.
Colton Schwabe: Duke 71-63
Duke has flexed its muscles at home several times this season and looks to put on a show Sunday. In each of their last four home games, the Blue Devils have limited their opponent to only 46 points, taking the pressure off Duke’s offense to get the ball to the basket. Even during periods of less-than-ideal scoring efficiency, Lawson’s squad continues to get the job done at home. Included in that four-game stretch was the team’s impressive defensive performance against Florida State, who scored only six points in the fourth quarter. Additionally, the Blue Devils’ defense will be especially active in the context of a rivalry game. North Carolina is neck-and-neck with its Tobacco Road rival in ACC standings but is coming off a three-game losing streak, while Duke has momentum from its home win streak. While bouts between these foes have historically unpredictable outcomes, I believe that Duke will pull out the victory behind that characteristic defense.
Martin Heintzelman: North Carolina 55-53
As someone who watched all three of the Duke-North Carolina games last year and covered the Blue Devils' only win, I can pretty confidently say how I think this game is going to go. Even with new personnel for both squads, these games usually come down to one or two possessions in matchups where defense shines. On Sunday, look for the biggest matchup to be between Kelly and Blue Devil guard Taina Mair. The two have been excellent on both ends of the floor this year, and this game will likely be a showcase of their talents. Seeing as the last few outings have been low-scoring affairs, this one likely will be too. The Tar Heels are also probably the better team, so look for them to end out on top of a nail-biter in Durham.
Riya Khatod: Duke 68-63
Duke is entering this game on a high. The Blue Devils have won three of their last four games, and have dominated in their last four showings at home. Given this momentum, it is difficult to envision their streak being broken by an unranked North Carolina team coming off a three-game loss streak. The Tar Heels can score, though. They average 69.8 points per game with Kelly leading her team with 387 points in 24 games. But, the Blue Devils are notorious for their defensive prowess, holding opponents to an average of 57.6 points. To defeat North Carolina, their defense must remain relentless throughout the entire 40 minutes of play. The nature of this rivalry game and the roaring Cameron Indoor atmosphere packed with Duke fans is bound to only improve their intensity on both ends of the court and ensure the home team pulls out a win.
Franck Djidjeu: Duke 60-55
One team is coming off back-to-back wins while the other is trying to bounce back from three straight losses. At first glance, it may seem like Duke is on a better trajectory, but its last two opponents are a combined 1-21 in the ACC, while North Carolina’s last two opponents are the No. 3 and No. 16 teams in the country. Despite that, the Tar Heels managed to make both games competitive, so if anything they are coming in hungry to get back in the win column. These are two very similar teams that lean on their elite defenses and thrive at home. That also means, however, that they share struggles on the road, and that may be the difference with the Blue Devils being the hosts. I believe Duke's stars, like Reigan Richardson and Jackson, will feed off the atmosphere, which will trickle down the rest of the team in what is sure to be an intense, low-scoring game.
Lilah Gorfain: Duke 64-59
Cameron Indoor Stadium is sold-out for Duke’s test against North Carolina — let’s not underestimate the energy a packed stadium will bring the Blue Devils. Duke has won its last eight home games. Confidence is everything for this team, and has continued to build as the Blue Devils have executed their most well-rounded performances of the season recently against the likes of Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Even with North Carolina’s scoring ability on the table compared to Duke’s often slow-to-start offense, the Blue Devils have shown that their defensive capabilities are strong enough to help the team pull away with a win. This season, Duke has kept 21 out of 22 of its opponents below their scoring averages. Look out for Kelly and Richardson to be key players in this sure-to-be-exciting matchup.
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