Forced to play from behind, Duke women's basketball shows incredible resolve in win against North Carolina

From left: Taina Mair, Ashlon Jackson and Oluchi Okananwa celebrate Duke's win against North Carolina.
From left: Taina Mair, Ashlon Jackson and Oluchi Okananwa celebrate Duke's win against North Carolina.

Comeback. That was the name of Duke’s rivalry game against North Carolina Sunday afternoon.

The Tar Heels came out of the gate strong, stronger than Duke anticipated. Their relentless energy propelled them to a commanding 6-0 run, dominating the first five minutes of play. If each quarter was five minutes, North Carolina would have controlled this game from start to finish. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, there was time to mount a comeback. 

That wasn't the only time they did so, also working in the first, second and fourth quarters to secure a monumental 68-60 victory

Freshman forward Delaney Thomas opened up the scoring for Duke with a quick layup immediately after entering the game, igniting the offense. Yet it was sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson’s fast-break-turned-decisive-three that shifted the momentum firmly in favor of the Blue Devils. By the end of the first quarter, Duke found itself back in contention, only trailing by one. 

“Before I went in, I was just thinking of how I can impact the game and how I can affect the game in a positive way,” Thomas said. “Specifically on the floor, just my defensive matchup. [Alyssa] Ustby is a really great player and I had to guard that the whole game so just locking in and knowing my assignment, really important.”

The second quarter mirrored the first. The Tar Heels kicked off the quarter on a 6-2 run in the first five minutes. Despite their efforts, the Blue Devils struggled to stifle the momentum generated by their opponents. Cue Thomas. She dropped six of Duke’s 13 points in the second half of the quarter to keep Duke almost even with North Carolina once more.

All hope seemed lost in the third quarter. The Tar Heels surged ahead, outscoring the Blue Devils 20-9 and eventually establishing a commanding 14-point lead toward the end of the quarter. Duke also struggled with itself, finding themselves on the wrong end of a 7-2 foul count. North Carolina showcased impressive accuracy, shooting 50% from the field, 50% from beyond the arc and 87.5% from the charity stripe. Senior guard Deja Kelly scored 11 points alone. The Blue Devils, on the other hand, found their offensive performance faltering, with only 33.3% of field goals finding the mark, a mere 20% success rate from 3-point range and a 50% conversion rate from the free-throw line. The Tar Heels dominated the boards, securing nine rebounds compared to Duke's meager four. For a team known for its defensive prowess and intensity, the Blue Devils were getting picked apart the entire 10-minute quarter.

“It's supposed to be challenging, you're not gonna have a run for 40 minutes. They're gonna have runs and they're really good,” said head coach Kara Lawson postgame. “So they made a run, and let's just focus on getting solid possessions one-by-one, and see if we can get back in this thing.”

Junior guard Reigan Richardson entered the fourth quarter with four points in the first four minutes. The comeback was on. The already electric Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd erupted as shot after shot fell for the Blue Devils.

“I mean, it was an unbelievable atmosphere. This is the best,” Lawson said. “This is the best area to be a college basketball player in the country.”

Duke’s offensive resurgence in the fourth quarter was marked by an impressive improvement in shooting efficiency. It elevated its game across the board, shooting 46.2% from the field, 66.7% from 3-point range and a flawless 100% from the free-throw line.The Blue Devils mounted a monstrous 8-0 scoring run over a six-and-a-half-minute span to tie the game at 58 apiece. It was a team effort, with Richardson, Thomas, Jackson, Taina Mair and Oluchi Okananwa all contributing with crucial buckets. Their defensive intensity also returned in the fourth quarter, out-blocking and out-stealing the Tar Heels while also disrupting North Carolina's offensive rhythm and forcing them into taking contested shots.

This mounting pressure was too much for North Carolina, who dropped its lead completely by the end of the game. In overtime, the momentum was clearly with the Blue Devils, who closed out the game with an eight-point lead — and perhaps their most important win of the season.

Despite the odds Sunday, nobody could count Duke out. 


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