It was always going to be a big game. Two punchy teams with lofty aspirations, two teams with the same ACC record. It did not disappoint. Despite falling behind in the third quarter, Duke rallied behind a monstrous performance from forward Delaney Thomas in the fourth quarter to win the game 68-60 in overtime.
“[At] the start of the second half [the Tar Heels] kind of threw a haymaker at us,” said head coach Kara Lawson after the game. “And it startled us ... but [I’m] just really proud of this group, continues to be resilient and not give into the score or how we were playing at the time and just keep fighting back.”
Foul trouble plagued the hosts down the stretch, as both junior Reigan Richardson and Oluchi Okananwa picked up four fouls relatively early in the final period. Despite the added stress, it was Okananwa who drained a shot from deep to cut the lead to just three points with under five minutes left. It was, unsurprisingly, Thomas who managed to tie the game up at 48, converting the and-one. Then, it was Taina Mair who managed to seize the lead, dropping in a shot from deep to give the Blue Devils (16-7, 8-4 in the ACC) their first advantage of the game.
Tar Heel guard Lexi Donarski answered right back at the other end, drawing the foul and converting the extra shot to give the visitors the lead. Two more Okananwa free throws continued to keep the game tied, and with a minute-and-a-half left it was 53 apiece. Despite valiant attempts and several timeouts, the Blue Devils were unable to make a shot to end the period. A forced turnovers gave the visitors a chance with the clock ticking down, but the Duke defense stood strong and the game was tied heading into overtime. Despite an intense, physical game both teams were conditioned and ready to go for overtime.
“There's always times that you're tired. But you know, I was ready to go,” Thomas said.
The Tar Heels (15-8, 7-6) drew first blood in the extra period, as Kelly dropped in a shot from deep. However, the Blue Devils quickly answered. First it was Thomas who put the ball up for her 17th and 18th points of the game. Then, she drew a fifth foul on star North Carolina forward Alyssa Ustby. A Kennedy Brown put-back again gave the home squad the lead, as the clock ticked below two minutes. Following that up was Reigan Richardson with a jumper from the elbow, and a rebounding foul allowed Brown to extend the lead to six points with just under two minutes remaining. The dagger came from Mair, who dropped in a shot from the corner to extend the lead to seven. Some more solid defense from the hosts prevented the last-second comeback, and the Blue Devils exited victorious.
The tension was palpable heading into a tightly-contested second half, as the hard-nosed basketball continued. The only available points were physical finishes at the rim and deep, often contested 3-pointers. It was the Tar Heels who found their stroke first. No play was more representative of how the half started than when Ustby pump-faked down low, as freshman Thomas bit and Ustby drew the tough and-one basket. On the very next trip down the floor, it was North Carolina guard Deja Kelly who drew another one down low, converting the basket before hyping up what was a sizable turnout from Chapel Hill on her way to the line. The youthful home team appeared to have lost control. But late in the game, the shots started falling and the team managed to bounce back.
“It was close all the way through. And we just made some plays there late in the fourth, and we finally started to make some shots, outside shots,” Lawson said. “I thought that gave us some confidence.”
Sophomore guard Emma Koabel managed to rally the troops for a skidding home team as the Tar Heels pulled away in the second half, draining a corner shot to cut the lead back to single digits. Even then, issues on both ends continued to plague the hosts. Seven fouls in the third quarter certainly did not help the Blue Devils, whose physical defense was coming back to bite them as they chased the game. The third quarter appeared like it might be the consequential one, as Duke finished the period down 12.
The Tar Heels came into the first with a plan, using Ustby to go right at Blue Devil freshman guard Jadyn Donovan. It worked, as Ustby took Donovan on the baseline and dropped in the bucket for the first points of the game. On the other end of the floor, the North Carolina defense was suffocating. Turnovers and mistakes abounded for Duke, which looked like it was struggling to find a rhythm. The shot clock ran low consistently, and forced poor selection from the field. At the under-5 timeout, the visitors led 11-4.
Then the Duke defense began to find its footing. Freshman standout guard Okananwa played as she often does, forcing turnovers and playing dynamically at both ends. On offense, it was Ashlon Jackson who provided a spark, pump-faking and taking a dribble before dropping a ball in from deep. The shots started to fall, as sophomore Taina Mair nailed one from deep. Some clever play design gave center Camilla Emsbo an easy look at the cup, and at the end of the quarter it was a one-point game.
The second period was much of the same, as the two teams battled it out. The defense was suffocating, and neither team was able to generate quality looks. The visitors continued to attack Donovan, who struggled on both ends of the floor. The freshman was jumpy on defense and unable to find her shooting stroke. Across the afternoon, Donovan went 0-for-3 from the field with a plus-minus of -4.
It was Thomas, however, who continued to provide a youthful jolt for the team. The freshman played excellent defense and provided some quality post play from the 4-spot. She often found herself in the position to grab rebounds and put up second-chance points when initial attempts failed to fall. Despite hard work on both ends of the floor, the first half ended much like the first quarter: with Duke down one. That said, Thomas’s hard work throughout the game did not go unnoticed.
“I just knew she would play well. What a cool thing to have as a coach is that type of confidence,” Lawson said. “And I didn't know what that would look like, we say someone's gonna play well, it might not be scoring, it might be defensively it might be rebounding, but she's very focused. And she locks in to what her job is. She did that today.”
After their tide-changing win, the Blue Devils next head to Blacksburg, Va., for a Thursday rematch with Virginia Tech.
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