HEEL KICKED: Duke women’s basketball falls just short in comeback bid, drops finale at North Carolina

Jadyn Donovan (4) reverses the ball in under heavy pressure from North Carolina's Alyssa Ustby (1).
Jadyn Donovan (4) reverses the ball in under heavy pressure from North Carolina's Alyssa Ustby (1).

CHAPEL HILL— Senior Day is supposed to be a time for celebration, honoring the legacy of players who have been cornerstones of a program for the past four or more years. For stars Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby and the remainder of the North Carolina senior class, their last memory at home will be beating their rival.  

In the regular season finale, Duke was locked into another dogfight against rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill. However, the result was the opposite of the first matchup between the two squads, as North Carolina emerged with a 63-59 win to end the Blue Devils’s regular season on a sour note. 

“It's always a battle. Fought late, they did a great job of executing and that was a difference in the game. I'm disappointed, obviously, no one likes to lose,” said head coach Kara Lawson postgame. “But I'm not discouraged, I think my team's had a great year and obviously now our eyes look forward to the postseason and look forward to Greensboro.”

Like they did for every other quarter, the Tar Heels punched first in the fourth, as Alexandra Zelaya knocked down her second 3-pointer of the day after a sequence of blown rebounding opportunities by Duke (19-10, 11-7 in the ACC) to put North Carolina up 49-46. 

With the game still in reach, Duke’s offense suddenly went silent, allowing the Tar Heels (19-11, 11-7) to go on a nine-point run to open up the final period. Duke began to finally come alive near the final media timeout as Jadyn Donovan and Taina Mair both converted layups to cut the deficit to five, but the scoring once again stalled out, as the Blue Devils simply could not string together stops and scores. A late push by Mair and Ashlon Jackson was not enough, as Kelly sunk the dagger one final time in her career by nailing a jumper with less than a minute remaining to clinch the win for the home team. 

A late steal and three made free throws by Jackson brought Duke within inches of a tie game, but Kennedy Brown was stuffed down low on a game-tying layup attempt that was the nail in the coffin for the visitors. 

“We were trying to see if we could get a turnover,” Lawson said. “We were also seeing if we could get a jump ball because the possession arrow was our way, just any way to kind of flip the possession without having to foul first and we got a couple. Yeah, I mean a look to tie it, a layup, you'll take that.”

Both teams came out of the locker room playing a little too loose, as there was a slew of turnovers and mishandling of offensive situations on both sides, as even solid free-throw shooter Kelly missed back-to-back foul shots for the home team. After seven combined turnovers by the first media timeout, the game was knotted at 36-36. Duke held a brief lead after an Oluchi Okananwa layup, but Zelaya responded with a 3-pointer that, combined with Reigan Richardson’s third foul, seemed to put the Tar Heels in the driver’s seat. 

However, a three by an animated Jackson gave the Blue Devils some life. A trey from freshman Sydney Barker seemed to ignite the home crowd, but Jackson immediately responded with another three that tied the game at 46 and visibly fired up head coach Kara Lawson on the sideline heading into the final 10 minutes. 

From the opening tip, it seemed as if the stout Duke defense had no trouble traveling down Tobacco Road, as the Blue Devils forced a shot-clock violation and a jump ball on the first two defensive possessions of the contest. Unfortunately for the visitors, the offense was not clicking right away, with a Jackson transition three being the only Duke bucket for the first four minutes of the game. The scoring efforts did not improve much for the remainder of the period, as a 3-for-15 shooting clip led to a 17-7 deficit after the first quarter. 

In front of a sold-out crowd at Carmichael Arena, the young Blue Devils seemed to be rattled early on, as they committed several sloppy turnovers before the first media timeout including an errant pass from Donovan that cost them an easy fast-break layup. These woes grew through the first portion of the game, as the North Carolina zone defense combined with the raucous crowd rendered Duke’s offense largely lifeless. 

Ustby, who was largely neutralized by freshman forward Delaney Thomas at Cameron Indoor Stadium in February, had an increased offensive presence in the early going Sunday afternoon, nearly matching Duke’s first quarter scoring total by herself as she scored at will inside. After she knocked down a three two minutes into the second quarter, the Rochester, Minn., native was outscoring the Blue Devils and the senior finished with the first half with 13 points. 

The second quarter brought much better early returns in terms of offensive production, as the Blue Devils had already more than doubled their scoring total four minutes into the period. The majority of this success came from beyond the arc, with sophomore guard Emma Koabel knocking down back-to-back treys to cut the Tar Heel lead to 24-18 after they led by as much as 15. 

After a three from Okananwa and a midrange jumper from Mair, Lawson’s squad found itself in a one-possession game that Brown flipped in favor of the Blue Devils after she knocked down a jumper to make it 27-26. From there, the rivals traded buckets for the remainder of the period, resulting in a 31-30 halftime lead for Duke despite having received zero points from leading scorer Richardson. Come crunch time, though, it was the Tar Heels who had just barely more left in the tank after a back-and-forth afternoon.

“I thought she was a little rushed in the first half with some of her shots, and because she's normally pretty accurate when she's in rhythm, and I thought she was a little out of rhythm for whatever reason,” Lawson said of Richardson. “But I love that kid and she's had an amazing year for us and I just kept putting her in because I believe in her, and I believe that she'll make a play for us.”

Next, the Blue Devils will await their draw in the ACC tournament, which begins Wednesday in Greensboro, N.C. 


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