GREENSBORO, N.C. -- On nine occasions, Duke and North Carolina have slugged it out -- not literally, although at times it almost felt like it -- for the ACC women's basketball tournament title. Including last year.
Saturday, the archrivals went at it again, with Duke prevailing 66-61 in a thriller at Greensboro Coliseum. Then the Blue Devils got to hoist the trophy for ...
Nope, not this time. Duke picked up an emotional semifinal victory, and the Blue Devils' seniors could breathe a sigh of relief: "Thank goodness we didn't end our ACC careers losing to Carolina for the third time in a row."
But there's no championship for this win, just a chance to play for one. There's a new sheriff in town, clad in green with a record that's pristine. No. 2 seed Duke will meet top-seeded and undefeated Notre Dame on Sunday (ESPN, 7 p.m.). The Fighting Irish have changed the dynamic of the ACC, in which either Duke or Carolina have won 16 of the past 20 conference tournament titles.
"This is a league that's been more defensive-dominated, athletic," said North Carolina assistant coach Andrew Calder, filling in on the bench for Sylvia Hatchell, who is battling leukemia. "And Notre Dame brings to the game excellent precision on the offensive end, and good position defense. They're going to make everybody in the league have to step it up."
Duke must do that Sunday to try to win the program's ninth ACC tournament crown. The Blue Devils lost by 21 points the first time they played Notre Dame this season, and by 11 the second. In that latter game, Duke also lost its second point guard of the season, as Alexis Jones went down with an ACL injury on Feb. 23. She joined senior Chelsea Gray (knee, Jan. 12) on the sidelines.
Then in the regular-season finale, the Blue Devils fell to North Carolina for a second time this year. You might have thought all that would just be too much for Duke to overcome -- that the Blue Devils would trudge downtrodden into Greensboro.
Instead, they clobbered Georgia Tech 82-52 in Friday's quarterfinals, and then rallied against North Carolina in the semis. Duke made big defensive plays, such as Elizabeth Williams' block of Stephanie Mavunga's shot inside with 45 seconds left and the score tied at 60.
And Duke made clutch free throws, including a combined 6-of-6 performance from the stripe in the last minute by freshman Oderah Chidom and junior Ka'lia Johnson.
"I looked at Oderah's eyes," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said before the rookie went to the line. "And I said, 'She's going to make these.'"
Meanwhile, Carolina didn't make enough shots (33.8 percent from the field) but did make a few too many mistakes. Diamond DeShields had a game-high 25 points, but committed a costly technical foul with just more than eight minutes left in the game.
DeShields hit a gorgeous step-back 3-pointer to put the Tar Heels up by six, but then got the T for jawing too much afterward. Duke's Tricia Liston converted the subsequent two free throws. And this was a game where every point counted. Live and learn.
DeShields got a good look to tie the score with 11 seconds left, but her 3-pointer went in and out. Now, North Carolina will prepare for the NCAA tournament, in which they are an early-round host.