Peter Koutroumpis (@pksport)
GREENSBORO, NC – The Battle of the Blues took the show on the road – from the Triangle to the Triad.
Second seeded Duke (25-5) took on rival North Carolina (21-10) for the third time this season.
Not in Cameron Indoor Stadium or Carmichael Arena, but in the 2023 ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on Friday.
The final result wasn’t an offensive explosion, but rather a defensive quagmire that the Blue Devils were able to endure just long enough and pull themselves out of to run away with a 44-40 final decision.
While head coach Kara Lawson earned her first win over North Carolina in five tries, the Blue Devils held an opponent to less than 50 points for the 16th time this season.
“Well, I thought in the critical moments of the game, we executed just a little bit better and were able to make one or two more plays,” Lawson said.
“That’s how these games go. It comes down to the end. You’ve seen it all across our league all year. You see it all across the country if you’re sitting there watching all these games. It just comes down to the end. We made one or two more plays. I don’t remember most of them, to be honest with you. I’ll watch a little bit of it, but I’m just proud how we stuck with it, and we just kept fighting. We missed a lot of easy stuff, but we didn’t let that get us down. We just stayed with it.”
It’s not just about quantity, but quality
Celeste Taylor’s play at both ends of the court with eight points and seven boards, exhibited the leadership of a hard-working squad that beat another hard-working squad.
Shayeann Day-Wilson contributed everywhere she could – posting 5 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals as a result.
Elizabeth Balogun’s 11 points coupled with Reagan Richardson’s 10 points led the offense for Duke, while Deja Kelly (11 points) and Alyssa Ustby (8 points) led North Carolina’s scoring lines.
The Tar Heels didn’t see their shots drop – shooting 24% from the field and 26% beyond the arc.
The Blue Devils fared a little better – barely though.
The margins of 32% shooting from the field and 22% from 3-point territory didn’t make the difference, but rebounding and free throw shooting did.
“Yeah, Duke doesn’t have to change what they do defensively,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said.
“They’re giving teams so few shots and so few great shots. Offense was really hard to come by. If you make a few of those open shots, it’s a different outcome.
“We took 12 more shots. Usually if you take 12 more shots, you win that game. That’s kind of a statistical deal there, and we only turned it over 12 times. There’s a lot of things these guys did well. We didn’t make enough shots, unfortunately. Defensively they were solid all day. One of the better defensive teams that there is.”
The floor is the ceiling
The low offensive numbers set new standards compared to previous low ones.
Duke’s 44 points were the fewest by a winning team in the ACC Tournament’s 46-year history.
The two teams’ combined 84 points scored tied for the fewest ever in an ACC Tournament contest, and was the lowest-scoring in the history of the series.
“You guys, we treated you to a great basketball game,” Banghart said.
“I didn’t think we could score less. I didn’t think it would be as low scoring as it was the last time we played them, but it actually was. It was actually less scoring. So you’re seeing two of the very best defensive teams in the country go at it in our state. How cool.
“We had a lot of chances in that fourth quarter to make shots, a lot of them, and I’m not the coach that says if you make shots you win. I’m the coach that says you’ve got to do it all right. So we have other mistakes, as well. But we had — I like a lot of the looks that we had, and we just weren’t able to finish them. Two really good teams, and a great basketball game today, and you never want to be the one that loses, but somehow it’s not really fair someone has got to lose these games.”
Lawson saw it similarly – forcing the other side to make mistakes led to the win.
“Well, what our goal is is to have them take challenged shots every time,” she said.
“We felt like in the first half they got loose for some lay-ups and some open threes, and we needed to kind of get a hold of our defense that way. What went right for us down the stretch was, I can’t say for sure every shot, certainly those two threes late that they missed were not challenged. But the rest of that second half we were in their face every time challenging, hand up, and then we did a pretty good job of securing the rebound one shot. That was just foundational, basic. Even though it’s basic, it’s really hard to do against good teams, and I just thought they shot with a hand in their face all night.”
Observations and Notes
1st Quarter: Duke led 5-3 at the 6:29 mark. Duke’s defense was suffocating UNC’s offense – scoreless for over three minutes (1-9) midway through the period. Banghart made changes to the lineup on the floor, trying to get a spark off the bench. After Vanessa DeJesus (2 points) missed a third consecutive layup drive, a 3 from Paulina Paris cut the Duke lead to one, 9-8, with 1:39 remaining.
Turnovers and missed layups in the paint kept Duke from opening the game wide open, and gave the Tar Heels the breathing room they needed to stay close. Duke led 9-8 at end of quarter – poor shooting from both – Duke 36%, UNC 21%. Duke committed 7 turnovers – finished scoreless for the final 4:35.
2nd Quarter: Duke went scoreless for nearly three minutes before Taylor knocked down a three to tie it up 14-14. While Duke continued to struggle from the field, the Tar Heels managed to drop some key shots from the perimeter, and led 21-16 with 2:06 to go. Fast-paced transition battles had bodies flying everywhere. UNC led 21-16 at halftime.
3rd Quarter: Consecutive 3s from Eva Hodgson (6 points) a minute apart pushed the UNC lead to 30-21 with 8:07 to go. A 7-0 run from Duke cut the margin to two, 30-28, following a Day-Wilson jumper. The battle continued with bodies flying on the floor at both ends along with intermittent baskets. A Kennedy Brown putback evened the score at 34-34 with a minute to go. Ustby’s fadeaway jumper pulled the Tar Heels back ahead 36-34 heading into the final period.
4th Quarter:Taylor’s jumper from the elbow tied it up 36-36 with 8:46 to play. Another Taylor jumper put Duke ahead 38-36, 90 seconds later. A Tar Heels fast break tied it up again. A Richardson jumper from inside the arc tied it at 40 with 2:40 to go. Richardson followed up with two free throws – 42-40 with under two minutes to go.
Duke led by two with 1:08 to go – part of a three-plus minute scoring drought for the Tar Heels. A turnover by Richardson gave North Carolina the chance it needed to tie or take the lead. Two three-point shot attempts missed and Duke’s Mia Heide (4 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks) claimed the critical rebound. Day-Wilson was subsequently fouled with 31.6 to go. One free throw dropped and the Duke lead was 43-40 with 30 seconds left. UNC couldn’t get anymore shots to drop. One final free throw from Day-Wilson iced it at 44-40.
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