No. 16 Duke tops No. 15 North Carolina, 81-80

DURHAM, N.C. – The 16th-ranked Duke Blue Devils held off the 15th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels to secure fourth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) standings with an 81-80 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday.

It couldn’t have been a more memorable ending for Senior Day as guards Ka’lia Johnson and Jenna Frush, along with forwards Elizabeth Williams and Amber Henson started with redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell in another hotly contested game between the two programs.

Azura Stevens (21 points, 12 rebounds), Greenwell (19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists), and Williams (18 points, 8 rebounds) led the Blue Devils (20-9, 11-5) with a solid offensive performance that finished with a 52-percent completion rate.

Stevens’ double-double contribution was evident throughout the game while a dominating second-half output from Greenwell and Williams, coupled with Henson’s 10 points, five rebounds, and three blocks made the difference.

The Tar Heels (23-7, 10-6) had five players finish in double figures, putting together scoring runs throughout the game, led by Allisha Gray’s 20-point and eight rebounds.

Jessica Washington (19 points, 3 rebounds) Latifah Coleman (14 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists), Stephanie Mavunga (11 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks), and Brittany Rountree (10 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists) helped to fuel a 44-percent shooting performance.

Both teams took their time in establishing their offensive tempo which looked controlled considering the emotion and energy generated from the opening tip.

The impact of the game’s outcome for seeding in the upcoming ACC tournament, as well as the pride of winning a game as part of the annual ‘Battle of the Blues’ helped to amp up the coaches and the players.

“It is really important for us to end the conference really well,” Williams said.

“We haven’t been doing that recently, so I think from that standpoint, it was definitely a big game.”

After losing to Duke 74-67 in overtime at home back on Jan. 25., the Tar Heels didn’t want to be swept in the season series.

They put together an impressive three-point shooting performance that finished 14-of-26 beyond the arc, tying a school record, and set them in a direction to earn a win.

So it seemed.

Gray put up a three that established North Carolina’s 5-2 lead in the first three minutes of play.

Greenwell matched that a minute later with her first 3-pointer.

Duke struggled while the Tar Heels pulled ahead 9-4 by the first media timeout.

Stevens tied it up a few minutes later after the Tar Heels turned it over off an end line inbounds play.

Aggressive defense and fouls allowed the Blue Devils to stay close.

Rountree’s first three-pointer of the game put North Carolina ahead 14-11 after seven minutes of play.

Gray’s hot hand beyond the arc kept the Tar Heels’ shooting percentage near 60 percent during the first 10 minutes of play, and soon put them ahead by six points.

A jumper from the right side and a steal and layup from Stevens pulled Duke within two, trailing 19-17 at the midpoint of the half.

Stevens continued her 6-0 run and tied the game.

The Tar Heels continued to struggle as Duke used the momentum to try to take the lead.

Coleman denied that with a three which Gray added to soon after as North Carolina led 25-21 with eight minutes to go.

Defensively, Coleman and the Tar Heels made it hard for Duke to try to claim the lead, causing turnovers and stealing the ball.

The Blue Devils couldn’t take full advantage of North Carolina’s lapse on offense even with how hard they worked to do so.

Danielle Butts (4 points, 2 rebounds) stole the ball and kept the Tar Heels ahead by two, leading 27-25 with four minutes remaining.

After Mavunga stuffed Kendall Cooper’s three-point attempt from the right side, the North Carolina forward dropped a free throw to reestablish a five-point lead for the visitors.

Coming out of the final media timeout, Washington contributed two 3’s, and along with Coleman’s fadeaway jumper, put together an 8-0 run that put Duke behind by 11 points.

Stevens continued to provide the Blue Devils’ only answer, but North Carolina kept scoring and carried a 40-29 advantage at halftime.

“It was a really hard fought game,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said.

“I’m just really proud of our seniors and Becca. Just the second half was a really great reflection of what we are capable of doing.”

“The defense in the second half was supposed to be just like the first half,” North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said.

“We had some breakdowns and got rattled on offense which hurt our defense. I knew it was going to be a game of runs. I told them in the locker room what was going to happen. Their size really bothered us. It was an extremely physical game.”

The Blue Devils eventually put together a well-balanced counter-attack and scored a season-high 52 points during the final half.

While Gray’s hot hand continued with a three early in the second half, Duke’s resurgence was led by Henson, Williams and Stevens.

It was Henson’s three followed by a successful and-1 that cut the home side’s deficit to four points.

Duke eventually took took the lead, 44-43, at the 16-minute mark as Stevens laid it in to extend a 15-3 run that caught the Tar Heels by surprise.

Greenwell hit her second three of the game shortly after to push the Duke lead to three points.

Cooper eventually extended the Blue Devils’ margin to 10 points, leading 54-44 with 12 minutes to play.

It was an impressive 25-4 swing that Gray slightly slowed, dropping North Carolina’s third basket of the half, four minutes after its previous one.

As the Tar Heels came out of their drought, they tried to start to a similar run.

At first they struggled against a more resilient Duke defense, but eventually endured to find an opening.

Duke kept its foot on the pedal, holding a 50-48 lead with 10 minutes remaining following a successful and-1 from Greenwell.

After Erin Mathias added her own and-1 sequence as part of a separate 9-0 Duke run, the Tar Heels found the mark, and hit three consecutive 3’s.

Washington dropped two and Rountree added a third to quiet the soldout crowd of 9,314 for a moment, with Duke leading 66-57 with 8:15 to play.

North Carolina’s 14-5 run cut the Duke lead down significantly.

After sitting on the bench with four fouls, Mavunga came in and finished an and-1 that pulled North Carolina to within six points with four minutes to play.

Tough defense on both sides resulted in blocked shots, but also impressive baskets.

With no one in front of her, Henson drove the lane and banked a running layup in.

At the other end, Washington drained another three.

Duke led 74-69 with 3:19 to play.

Mavunga scored five points as part of a quick 9-2 run as the Duke lead was cut to four points.

Stevens then dropped two free throws to keep the Blue Devils ahead 78-72 with 1:51 to go.

Hatchell called a timeout.

On the ensuing possession, Coleman was left wide open and hit a long three, making it a three-point game.

With Williams called for her fourth foul while trying to drive past Washington, the table was set for the Tar Heels to tie the game.

Two missed three-point attempts from Gray and Washington, coupled with an offensive rebound didn’t do it, but Mavunga’s rebound and layup made it a one-point game with Duke leading 78-77.

The Blue Devils had possession of the ball with the game and shot clock synced at 30.4 seconds.

It turned into a free throw contest.

Stevens scored 1-of-2 and the Tar Heels had last possession trailing by two.

Gray went up for the layup and it was almost certain to drop as it rolled across the rim.

But, it didn’t.

Stevens claimed the rebound and iced the game with two more successful free throws.

With only two seconds left on the clock, the Tar Heels took a timeout, trailing 81-77.

Gray eventually got the ball, dribbled near the top of the arc, and launched her final three-point attempt of the game as the buzzer sounded.

It dropped, but it wasn’t enough.

There was no foul, no chance to even it up.

As a 56-percent free throw shooter, Stevens scored 5-of-6 from the line and gave the Blue Devils the win, and ended their recent three-game losing streak.

It was a momentum shift that McCallie hoped would bode well for Duke heading into postseason play.

“I think it depends how we use it, and I think we’re going to use it well. We’re going to get some rest and get ready for Friday. I think this team knows what it can do.”

For Hatchell, the loss would serve as motivation for her team to prepare harder for the upcoming conference tournament in Greensboro.

“It was a great game, but in the second half, we just couldn’t get things going. We learned from it and everything happens for a reason.”

Notes: The win gave McCallie her 100th ACC win, accomplishing the feat in the shortest amount of games (122) than any other coach previously – a mark previously held by the late Kay Yow who reached it in 129 games…Duke will enter the ACC Tournament as the No. 4 seed, while North Carolina sits as the No. 6 seed…Tournament play begins on Wednesday with first-round games beginning at 1 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum…North Carolina will play the winner of No. 11 Georgia Tech and No. 14 Clemson on Thursday at 8 p.m…Duke will play in the first quarterfinal game at 11 a.m. on Friday.