by Mike Potter
It’s the (insert your own three-digit number here) game between Duke and UNC, two athletic programs that may not like each other much on a daily basis but each of whose very existence contributes plenty to the other’s success.
Duke (28-3) — ranked No. 8 nationally — is the defending champion with the top seed, and has had very few blips this season as it strives for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
UNC (25-7) — ranked No. 19 nationally — ended up with the No. 6 seed after losing its last four games of the regular season but has been on an upset tear in the tournament and move up in the rankings this week.
Duke beat the Tar Heels 66-58 a week ago today in Cameron, while UNC won 62-60 on Feb. 7 in Carmichael.
The arena is about 85 percent full and it’s going to be a noisy afternoon.
The teams go blow-for-blow over the first 30 minutes, but perhaps the reality of playing four in four days hits the Tar Heels at the end as Duke pulls away 81-66.
Duke leads 37-32 at the break after a high-energy first half with nine ties and five lead changes.
Jasmine Thomas has 12 points at the break for Duke, while Jessica Breland has 10 for the Tar Heels.
There are three more ties before the Tar Heels take their final lead at 54-53 with 9:28 to play. The killer blow is Duke’s ensuing 15-0 run ending on a pair of Jasmine Thomas free throws with 3:21 to go. Five players score during the run.
Duke leads by 17 four times over the last 2:35, starting with a five-point play that makes it 73-56 at 2:35.
Tournament MVP Jasmine Thomas leads the Blue Devils with 21 points, followed by Peters with 14, Karima Christmas 13 and Allison Vernerey 10.
Breland paces UNC with 27 points, followed by Italee Lucas with 11 and Chay Shegog 10.
Duke shoots 46 percent to UNC’s 47.3, but wins the rebound battle 38-27 and commits 18 turnovers to the Tar Heels’ 20.
Thomas becomes the second Duke player, after Iciss Tillis (2003-04), to become back-to-back MVP, and is now in seventh place on the Blue Devils’ all-time scoring list. Christmas now has 1004 career points.
Christmas, Breland, Lucas and Miami’s Shenise Johnson join Thomas on the first all-tournament team with Duke’s Chelsea Gray and UNC’s Cetera DeGraffenreid on the second along with N.C. State’s Bonae Holston, Georgia Tech’s Ty Marshall and Miami’s Riquna Williams.
They said it …
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie: Obviously, I'm very, very proud of our team, our seniors, and the leadership exhibited out there throughout this tournament. Our team played very, very well. … I want to make a statement about Jessica (Breland) and her courage and what she did to fight back for her team and the way she played in this tournament. … About our team, again, I can't say enough about Jasmine Thomas. It's just really sort of poetic justice for her to be the most valuable player because she is somebody who exudes everything you'd want in a student athlete, relative to her competitive spirit, her fire, and her focus, and all of those elements that you all know her so well.”
UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell: “It's not the end of the world. I'm proud of my seniors. Jessica doesn't know that she broke a record today, most field goals in a tournament. It was a 30 year record by Barbara Kennedy. So that was great. I thought Cetera did a great job the last four days leading our team and running the show out there for us and getting the ball to the right people. We played hard for four days. We played real hard, and I'm just proud of the way they played. We were looking forward to the NCAA Tournament, so we're going to go back and rest up a few days.”
Jasmine Thomas: “I think we accomplished a lot just as far as having people get some experience in a tournament type of atmosphere where you do have to win your game to advance. I think you get caught up in the regular season, yes, trying to win games but knowing that, whether you win or lose, you have another game after.
I think going into NCAA Tournament, it's more so important because it could end your season.”
Christmas: “I think we (seniors) just try to lead by example. Having the (the freshmen) come in the game and giving it all that they got is all we can ask for. Haley did a tremendous job staying on the boards, Chelsea finding open people at the right time. They're just good players, and they feed off of what we do, and we appreciate that.”
Lucas: “We definitely got our swagger back the last four days. We played hard throughout the whole tournament. This is just more motivation for the NCAAs.”
Breland: “We’ve just got to get better. I think we kind of got mentally fatigued more than physically. We went back to old habits a little bit, some of us, and we can't do that when it comes down to the tough games like this. We just basically have to be tough and take this as a learning experience and keep pushing for it.”
What does it all mean?
That Duke will head in to its home-court sub-regional in the NCAA Tournament with plenty of momentum, and that the Tar Heels should be moving up in the polls this week.
Stars of the game
1. Jasmine Thomas.
Play of the game
With 2:35 left, Thomas hits a 3-pointer and Peters draws a foul, hitting both ends of a one-and-one to make it 72-56.
UNC leads 47-34.
Duke: Won 6.
UNC: Lost 1.
UNC vs. Kennesaw State, March 13, 4 p.m.
Duke in NCAA Tournament (Durham), March 19, 11 a.m.