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.
"First, we've got to get our heads up," said DeShields, whose Tar Heels won two games in Greensboro as the No. 6 seed. "We've got to understand that we can play with anybody, and we'll be all right."
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils have given themselves another shot at slaying the team that has been the ACC's giant this season.
"We've gone through a lot as a team, and it hasn't really worn us down emotionally," said Duke senior Haley Peters, whose eight rebounds contributed to the Blue Devils' critical 44-37 edge on the boards. "It's just made us really become a closer team. It's been a fun challenge since Lex got hurt for us all in playing new roles. We've been energized by it, I think."
Now, that's looking on the bright side. Liston, who led Duke with 17 points Saturday, has had to take over more of the point guard duties. She is a different player from Gray or Jones. Which means Duke has had to adjust very late in the season in how its offense operates most efficiently.
"One noticeable difference is we're not running every chance we have," Liston said. "We find ourselves passing a lot more, especially in the open court and breaking presses.
"At first, it was a little difficult, a little weird. Now I think ... the chemistry is really coming together again."
Only problem is, now Duke is facing a team that practically has a PhD in chemistry, that of the basketball variety.
The weather has been a bit crazy here in the heart of the North Carolina, going from snow/freezing rain to sunshine and 70 degrees. All during the course of Notre Dame's first ACC tournament.
But while Mother Nature has been so inconsistent, the Irish have been like a metronome. Steady, steady, steady.
Saturday, the Irish cruised 83-48 over injury-depleted NC State, the No. 4 seed that was without leading scorer Markeisha Gatling. The Wolfpack play a four-out/one-in offense, and Gatling is the one who's inside in that scheme. But she was "out" Saturday after injuring her knee in Friday's quarterfinal, in which she scored a career-high 28 points.
The good news for the Wolfpack: There is no structural damage to Gatling's knee, so she is expected to be back for the NCAA tournament. Not that she necessarily would have made a huge difference Saturday; Notre Dame won by 24 against NC State with Gatling on March 2.
"I would have liked to have played them at full strength," NC State coach Wes Moore said of the Irish. "But at the same time, they're what, 31-0? So they've shown that they can do this to pretty much anybody in the country on a given day."
Shhh ... don't go yakking too much about that 31-0 stuff around Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. She likens the Irish's attitude about their perfect record to a baseball superstition.
"It's like we're throwing a no-hitter right now," McGraw said, "and we're in our dugout in a little bubble, and we don't want anybody talking about it."
Notre Dame breezed through its quarterfinal and semifinal games, and McGraw was able to liberally use her bench. The consistency with which Notre Dame has played all season has been on full display here in Greensboro. McGraw credits her veterans for that.
"I think leadership -- those three seniors have been down the road," McGraw said of Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker. "They've played in three Final Fours, so nothing is going to faze them. It doesn't matter if it's a new place, we're going to be the same on the road as we are at home. They make sure the rest of the team is in line with that."
That's what Duke will have to overcome to claim this championship. Beating Carolina, as always, was sweet for Duke. But it wasn't all the Blue Devils need to do here.