by Mike Potter
GREENSBORO COLISEUM Whether or not it’s the greatest rivalry in college sports may be up for debate, but it’s the best rivalry in college basketball.
Maybe in basketball, period.
The Blue Devils won the men’s contest pretty easily last night at the Smith Center.
Today the women’s squads are squaring off for the ACC championship, in — with thanks to Warren G. Harding — a return to normalcy after last year’s bizarre Maryland-Georgia Tech final for which a great crowd showed up anyway.
Duke has won six straight in the series and of course won both regular-season meetings, destroying the Tar Heels 84-63 on Feb. 3 at Carmichael but winning only 65-58 a week ago at Cameron.
Both teams have fought hard to get here, as this week underdog teams have not gone away easily. The only real blowout in the tournament has been an upset, as No. 10 Wake Forest took out No. 7 Georgia Tech by 19 points in the first round.
This one isn’t close, as freshman Alexis Jones’ career high matches teammate Elizabeth Williams’ 24 points as the Blue Devils coast 92-73.
Williams breaks an ACC record with the first of her two blocks in her 65th consecutive game. Haley Peters adds 17 points for the Blue Devils.
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt leads the Tar Heels with 25 points, all in the second half, followed by Latifah Coleman and Waltiea Rolle with 10 each. It’s only the third double-figure game of the sophomore Coleman’s career after her 17-point explosion against Maryland on Saturday.
Duke shoots 56.9 percent to UNC’s 30.0 and wins the rebound battle 39-33. The Blue Devils turn the ball over 18 times to the Tar Heels’ 14.
Of note is awesome free-throw shooting on both sides, as Duke goes 22-for-27 and UNC 26-for-29.
Jones — who replaced the injured Chelsea Gray as Duke’s starting point guard three weeks ago — is named tournament MVP while Williams, Peters, Ruffin-Pratt and Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas round out the first team.
Duke’s Tricia Liston makes the second team along with Coleman, Rolle, the Terps’ Tianna Hawkins and Wake Forest’s Chelsea Douglas.
They said it …
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie: “I’m just really proud of this team and their fight and resilience. As we’ve come along here in our new season of getting to know each other (since Gray’s injury), these three games were extremely valuable for our team to get better. We did, and it was an awful lot of fun. Alexis just continues to grow. She has a really, really great sense of the game and she enjoys her teammates very much. Her poise is incredible, and her willingness to listen is really amazing.”
UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell: “I’m very proud of my team. We battled hard. When the season started we were picked by the media fifth in the conference and we weren’t even ranked in the country. I said we were underrated and that we would be very hard to play against. Duke’s a great team and I don’t know how much better they could have played than they did today. From what I can see, they’re probably a better team with Alexis Jones out there than they were with Chelsea Gray.”
Jones: “I think this is a good opportunity for my career playing for Duke. It’s a good opportunity to get the start on freshmen who are probably not getting to play this year. So it’s really just a blessing for me right now. My teammates are always talking to me, telling me exactly what needs to be done. We feed off each other, and we learn every time we play with each other. And I think we've played good team ball all the time.”
Ruffin-Pratt: “In the second half we had to get points on the board. In the first half I sat out a lot because I was in foul trouble. I had to come out and take over and help get my team as close as I could. I had to play more cautious because they were calling offensive fouls driving to the basket.”
What does it all mean?
That Duke is still a contender for the NCAA title if it plays its best games on the right days. And that the Tar Heels could go a long way in the tournament if they don’t get behind a top opponent early.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Ka’lia Johnson’s layup from Liston to make it 72-46 with 7:38 left after Duke had three straight offensive rebounds on the possession.
Duke: Won 4.
UNC: Lost 1.
UNC leads 47-39.
Duke in NCAA Tournament at home, March 24.
UNC in NCAA Tournament.