North Carolina faced No. 6 Duke, ready to close out a regular season characterized by losses of historic proportion.
What the team earned Sunday was a chance to rewrite its legacy.
“We’re not finished up this year,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “This team’s got a lot of great days ahead of them.”
North Carolina (18-10, 6-8 ACC) beat Duke 64-54 after the Blue Devils clinched the ACC regular season title Friday.
With the win, North Carolina earned a No. 8 seed and will face ninth-seeded Maryland in the first round of the ACC Tournament on Thursday.
The win also added further proof to bolster North Carolina’s chance at receiving an NCAA Tournament bid.
“We’ll probably have to win a few in the tournament,” Hatchell said. “But I’m hoping this will get us in.”
The unranked Tar Heels entered the game with seven losses in their past eight games, including a 79-51 bludgeoning at Duke.
But the game was no rerun of that match. In fact, it was no rerun of any game Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie had ever witnessed.
“In my 18 years of coaching, I’ve never seen a game like this,” McCallie said.
North Carolina finished the game with two players fouled out, one ejection and 20 second-half points from guard Cetera DeGraffenreid.
And though Duke registered a 72-47 advantage in shot attempts, its sloppy offense proved a testament to UNC’s defense, which held Duke to 26.4 percent shooting for the game, well below its 42.7 percent season average.
Unrelenting physicality characterized the matchup. UNC took hold of the game beginning with a series of missed free throws by Duke.
With 13:12 remaining in the game, North Carolina trailed the Blue Devils 42-39. Freshman forward Waltiea Rolle, the biggest UNC contributor to that point with 12 points, six rebounds and six blocks, picked up her fourth foul.
Just nine seconds later, forward Cierra Robertson-Warren was ejected after being called for a flagrant foul. UNC committed two more fouls within the minute.
But Duke converted just 1-of-8 on the three trips to the charity stripe.
And even DeGraffenreid’s signature late-game offensive burst proved surprising.
After scoring just two points in the first half, DeGraffenreid added 20 points in the second half.
“The coaches kept telling us, ‘Take it to the basket. Take it to the basket,’” DeGraffenreid said.
And for more than five minutes, that was all the Blue Devils saw.
Staging relentless fast breaks, DeGraffenreid scored 15 points on 17 attempts at the free-throw line.
DeGraffenreid sank two free throws to bring UNC within one point with 11:13 remaining. She scored 13 of North Carolina’s next 17 points to give UNC a 57-51 lead with 3:58 remaining.
“We enabled her completely,” McCallie said.
Duke failed to sink a shot from the field in the final six minutes.
“It was just a team effort and a great win,” DeGraffenreid said.
If UNC beats Maryland, the team will advance to play top-seeded Duke again. A fitting way to continue a new season’s end — or a new beginning.
“Playing Duke three times,” DeGraffenreid said. “What could be better?”
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