February 27, 2023 

After signature win at Duke, North Carolina looks like ACC’s deepest team heading to Greensboro

A UNC vs. Duke rematch is possible on Friday in Greensboro.

DURHAM, N.C. — Perhaps better than anyone else, Courtney Banghart knew what was at-stake on Sunday when her North Carolina Tar Heels went into a raucous and sold out Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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Sure, UNC needed the victory to reinforce its case that it should be hosting games during the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend. But more than that, she understood what it would mean if Duke won.

“If they beat us, they’re going to cut down nets while we’re here,” Banghart said, as she glanced over at a TV in Duke’s media room that was showing Notre Dame’s game against Louisville. “So, we were going to be part of that, right? … I guess we should root for (in-state) teams if it wasn’t us, but not while we’re here.”

In a drama-filled Sunday to cap off the ACC’s regular season, North Carolina spoiled Duke’s senior day and denied the Blue Devils the chance to claim at least a share of the conference title for the first time since 2013. Because of UNC’s win, Notre Dame – albeit without Olivia Miles – won the conference’s regular season title outright.

The Tar Heels completed a season sweep of their Tobacco Road rivals, winning 45-41 Sunday. It’s the first time since the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons that UNC has beaten Duke four times in a row. Carolina also went 4-1 against in-state ACC opponents in teh regular season.

“It’s always a rival with Duke, but it’s our state,” UNC junior guard — and North Carolina native — Kennedy Todd-Williams said. “We claimed that this year, and it’s up from here.”

After the result, Duke fell two spots in the AP Top 25 Poll to 13th, while UNC moved up four spots to 18th.

The rivalry between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils could see its next chapter written very soon. UNC is the seventh seed in the ACC Tournament, which begins this week in Greensboro, N.C. Should the Tar Heels win on Thursday – against the winner of No. 10 Clemson and No. 15 Pitt – they will then again face Duke on Friday in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

“Awesome,” Banghart said when a reporter informed her of the likely scenario.

“Great to hear,” UNC guard Deja Kelly quickly added.

“How great for our state? Greensboro should have a really big crowd,” Banghart continued. “These guys are ready for March.”

The last time Carolina beat Duke four times in a row, Todd-Williams and Kelly were in elementary school. The 2004-05 season was also the last time UNC beat Duke three times in the same season, topping the Blue Devils in the Dean E. Smith Center, Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Greensboro Coliseum – three of the most storied venues in ACC history.

“I didn’t know that. Knowing that now, it just means so much more,” Kelly said. “And we know how important this tradition is. That’s part of the reason why we chose this school – we knew about the tradition, we knew about the rivalry. So, to be part of it and to sweep that past two years, I think that feels really good for us and makes a statement.”

Deja Kelly shoots a free throw in the fourth quarter of UNC vs. Duke in Durham on Feb. 26, 2023. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)
Deja Kelly shoots a free throw in the fourth quarter of UNC vs. Duke in Durham on Feb. 26, 2023. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Duke is armed with one of the best defenses in the country. Under the direction of Kara Lawson, the Blue Devils rank fourth nationally in defensive rating (75.4), sixth in opponent field goal percentage (34.8), third in points allowed per play (0.66), and first in opponent assist-turnover ration (0.43). But UNC’s defense is pretty stellar too, ranking 11th in defensive rating (78.7), eighth in opponent points per 100 possessions (87.7) and 24th in total steals (277). This matchup made for a mucked up first half, where both sides combined for 26 turnovers and neither team shot better than 30% from the floor.

But as the game wore on, UNC began to find the seams and spaces it needed to score points. Todd-Williams and Kelly – UNC’s top two scorers – had struggled with shooting for much of the contest, but when it mattered the most, the duo came through. With 2:20 remaining to play, Todd-Williams swished a corner-3 in front of UNC’s bench to tie the game. On Duke’s next possession, she seized on a ball that teammate Destiny Adams had knocked loose, drew a foul and knocked down a pair of free throws to give UNC the lead.

“I think we have to do what we have to do. Our teammates had a lot of faith in us,” Todd-Williams said. “We just all came together. We knew it was going to come down to hitting a big shot.”

Then it was Kelly’s time to shine. With 1:16 left, the junior drove into the lane, connected on a contested lay-up, drew a foul and completed the And-1 play to give UNC a five-point advantage. Moments later, she put the game on ice when Duke’s Shayeann Day-Wilson fouled her with 13 seconds to play. Kelly’s free throws gave UNC a two-possession advantage and ultimately sealed the win.

“(Day-Wilson) was playing really close on me, and I knew she was going to reach at some point. I used that to my advantage and I attacked her hips,” Kelly said, describing how she drew the timely foul. “It’s definitely a skill. I take pride in that… If you reach and you’re playing super aggressive, I’ll try to get into your body.”

Kelly and Todd-Williams combined for 10 points in the final two-and-a-half minutes of play. No UNC player scored in double digits, and it was the lowest scoring total for the Tar Heels in a victory in program history.

“I mean,” Todd-Williams said with a grin, “Who cares? We won the game.”

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Indeed. North Carolina has had to figure out a lot of different ways to capture victories this season. Sometimes with offense, mostly with defense, often shorthanded, and occasionally in gritty and ugly dogfights like Sunday in Cameron.

The result against Duke also marked the sixth time this season that UNC has beaten an AP-ranked opponent, which is the most of any team in the ACC and is tied with UConn for the fourth-most in the country. Only Stanford, Indiana and Maryland have more.

While several ACC teams are battling injuries – N.C. State, Notre Dame – and others like Virginia Tech have short rotations, North Carolina is completely healthy at the perfect time, and can go deep into its bench. Nine players saw action at Duke, and Banghart relied on youngsters Destiny Adams, Paulina Paris and Kayla McPherson when the game mattered most.

Those previously inexperienced players earned valuable minutes – and Banghart’s trust – earlier this season when starters Alyssa Ustby and Eva Hodgson were out nursing injuries. The Tar Heels wouldn’t have beaten N.C. State at home without Adams’ timely fourth-quarter 3-point shooting, McPherson dropped 22 points in a home win over Boston College, and Paris – the squad’s lone true freshman – averages 21.1 minutes per-game and has featured in every contest for the Tar Heels.

In a perfect world, Banghart would’ve liked for her roster to have been healthy all season long and not suffered late season road losses while she was shorthanded. But those games prepared her bench for Sunday, and for the ACC Tournament.

“They’re ready. They’re proven,” Banghart said. “These are people that have had success in ACC games… There’s just that influx of energy and confidence that’s been really helpful at the right time for us.”

Last season, Miami was just the second-ever No. 7 seed to make the ACC Tournament final. And no team seeded lower than fifth has ever won the league tourney. With the right mix of health, confidence and talent, North Carolina could be the first to do so.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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