by Mike Potter
GREENSBORO COLISEUM It's finals day at the ACC Women's Basketball Tournament, and for the ninth time in its 11 seasons in Greensboro there are two North Carolina teams in the championship game.
One of two very different stories is going to be written today.
The most likely one is "Third Time's the Charm!" That means Duke, which is ranked No. 9 nationally and the tournament's top seed, beats N.C. State and wins for the first time in Joanne P. McCallie's three straight trips to the final.
The other is "The Glass Slipper fits!" That means first-year Wolfpack coach Kellie Harper takes her outsized, scrappy sixth-seeded team shakes off its 70-39 loss on Feb. 11 at Cameron Indoor Stadium and pulls off a big upset.
Duke gets McCallie her sixth conference tournament title, including one in the Big Ten at Michigan State and four others at Maine, with a 70-60 victory in front of 9,432 fans.
The Wolfpack is very happy to be here, but not happy just to be here, and gets out to a 9-2 lead on a pair of Nikitta Gartrell free throws at 15:57 of the first half.
And then Duke asserts its superiority by scoring the next 14 points, making it 16-9 on a Joy Cheek jumper with 11:38 to go.
The Blue Devils lead 32-27 at the break, following a couple of Gartrell free throws with three seconds left in the period.
Duke goes up 38-27 on a Karima Christmas 3-pointer with 18:08 left in the game, stretching the margin to 60-42 on a Cheek jumper with 8:20 to go.
State keeps pushing, slicing the lead to 67-58 on an Amber White jumper at 1:57, but can get no closer.
Jasmine Thomas leads Duke with 18 points, and is the tournament MVP. Karima Christmas with 13 points and senior Cheek with 11 are also first-team all-tourney for Duke.
Senior Gartrell hits 19 for State and is all tournament, as is Bonae Holston who scores 14.
The Wolfpack's Marissa Kastanek is second-team all-tourney along with Boston College's Carolyn Swords, Georgia Tech's Alex Montgomery, Virginia's Monica Wright and Maryland's Lynetta Kizer.
Duke shoots 38.5 percent to State's 35.8, wins the rebound battle 46-32 including 19 offensive boards, and commits 20 turnovers to State's 23.
Duke wins its first ACC Tournament since 2004 and sixth overall, with all of those coming in Greensboro.
They said it:
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie: "I'm so proud of this team, the way this team has worked so hard. This was a tough tournament, tough games that we played. We rebounded today. We shared the ball today. Different people stepped up. Our seniors, Joy Cheek and Keturah Jackson and Bridgette Mitchell, did a fantastic job. Jasmine Thomas has been so steady for us, as well as Karima Christmas and others. We're working on getting better and I think we did today."
N.C. State coach Kellie Harper: "Obviously (Duke) is a very talented basketball team and I want to wish them success moving forward. I'm extremely proud of our team for so many reasons - for improving, for believing, for working hard in practice, for playing together. But in that locker room a few minutes ago, I was proud of them for wanting more. They're hurt because they didn't win this game, and I'm so proud of that. ... I think our kids have proven over the last few weeks that we are an NCAA Tournament team. Right now I don't think I have to make an argument for these girls. I think they made it for me."
Cheek: "We had this goal in mind, because three of us have seen us go to the ACC tournament championship and come up short. The balloons and the streamers, we had to watch them fall down for someone else. And so we didn't want to have to see that happen again. It was an embarrassing feeling, and we just didn't want to feel like that again."
Gartrell: "We can't hang our heads. We lost. We wanted to win, but we have a whole season ahead of us which is the NCAA. We came into the season trying to get back to it. Right now we have to get refocused, and hopefully it will turn out great."
What does it all mean?
That Duke has great momentum going into the NCAA, and that State proved it could play with the nation's No. 9 team after three wins in three days.
Stars of the game
1. J. Thomas.
Play of the game
Cheek's tip-in of a missed Christmas free throw at 4:01 to put Duke up 64-48.
State leads 39-30.
NCSU: Lost 1.
Duke: Won 3.
Duke hosting NCAA Tournament first/second rounds, March 20-22.
N.C. State to post-season play; announcement March 15.