- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- About 15 yards separated the Duke and North Carolina locker rooms inside the Greensboro Coliseum. But at halftime of Sunday's ACC tournament final, the strategies being discussed behind those doors could not have been further apart.
The Blue Devils had just streaked into the break, clamping down with a full-court press and finishing the half on a 14-2 run that gave them a 39-24 lead. One Duke player called out, "We can't stop now," then, "Let's keep doing what we're doing!"
Meanwhile, just a few feet away, the Tar Heels were reassessing all points of their strategy, from pick-and-roll defense to how to unlock Duke's tricky zone look.
When the teams ran back onto the court, the top-seeded Blue Devils looked clear-headed and ready -- prepared to win their eighth ACC tournament title since 2000. Which is, of course, exactly what they did, dispatching third-seeded North Carolina 92-73. After Duke started the second half on a 10-2 run, the rest of the second half was really just one long display of Duke's epic Duke-ness.
This show, featuring impossible-to-decode defense and fundamental shooting, reached a crescendo during the final 4:17 of the first half, which is when the game was won. The score was 25-22. The game was a see-saw, with four ties and a couple of lead changes. Then Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie switched her squad into a 2-2-1 full-court zone press. It was a thing of beauty.
"Coach P likes to switch defenses to mess teams up a bit," Duke center Elizabeth Williams told espnW immediately after the game. "And at that moment, our defensive intensity picked up. We got a lot of deflections, a lot of steals at that point. That was the main difference in the game."
On one play during this run, Duke's front four defenders whipped the Tar Heels into a frenzy, forcing an ambitious cross-court pass. Williams, who is 6-foot-3 with eye-popping agility, made like a defensive back and rotated over to intercept the ball.
"That's my job," said Williams, who finished with 24 points and 8 rebounds. "I can see everything that the guards can't always see behind them."
A few seconds later, Duke forward Richa Jackson was spinning in the lane, dropping a floater to put her team ahead 33-22.
Realistically, though, the game was over before the teams even reached their locker rooms at halftime. After all, what squad can actually score an extra 15 points against the Blue Devils, whose defense this season has been some of the best in team history? (Duke holds opponents to 33.9 percent shooting from the floor.)
As the Tar Heels ran back onto the court to start the second half, one of their assistant coaches urged, "Everything we got for 20 minutes!"
It was going to take exactly that to keep this game from becoming a blowout. "I don't know how much better they could have played than they did," said North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell. "They're just so skilled, especially offensively, and that makes their defense even better. But we weren't going to sit back and not go after them. So we did, and they were able to take the ball to the basket and score. But, you know, we did go after them."
The thing with Duke is, well ... there is no one thing. The Blue Devils do a little bit of everything. As outlined above, their team defense is some of the best in the country. And it's difficult to prepare for, since McCallie seamlessly switches her team from man-to-man to zones to full-court presses.
On the other side of the ball, Duke shoots with an accuracy from the perimeter that is the best in the nation. The Blue Devils entered Sunday's title game shooting 42.1 percent from downtown -- much better than the next best team, Penn State, which is shooting 39.1 percent. At this pace, Duke will end the season with the highest team 3-point percentage since Wisconsin-Green Bay finished the 2007-08 season draining at a rate of 42.8 percent.
And then there's freshman guard Alexis Jones, who has handled point guard duties since star Chelsea Gray went down with a knee injury three weeks ago. Jones scored 24 points on Sunday. She finds the gaps in the defense with a deceptive hesitation move. And once a defender turns her head, Duke's smooth shooters -- Tricia Liston, Haley Peters and Chloe Wells -- find the open spaces.
"From what I can see, they're probably a better team with Alexis Jones out there than they were with Chelsea Gray," Hatchell said. "They're doing a lot of things with Alexis at point that they weren't doing when Chelsea was out there."
Duke finished Sunday's game shooting 56.9 percent from the floor, 44.4 percent from three and 81.5 percent from the free-throw line.
That was just Duke being Duke. And, on this particular afternoon, North Carolina didn't stand a chance.
19dBonnie D. Ford