Different vibe as No. 7 Duke visits No. 14 UNC women

Mar. 01, 2014 @ 05:43 PM

More times than not, the regular-season finale between Duke and North Carolina in women’s basketball has had a championship feel to it.

Either the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels have won or shared the ACC’s regular-season championship 11 of the last 12 seasons.

ACC expansion to 15 teams this season, with the addition of Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, has changed that dynamic as the unbeaten Irish will be the No. 1 seed for the ACC Tournament in Greensboro starting Wednesday.

Still, playing at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill Sunday, March 2 (1 p.m., ESPN), rivals Duke and UNC seek good vibes entering the postseason as both have endured rocky seasons.

After entering the season ranked No. 2 and harboring serious Final Four hopes, the No. 7 Blue Devils (25-4, 11-3 in ACC) have had yet another impressive season. But season-ending knee injuries to starting guards Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones have left Duke to settle for second place in the league standings.

Duke lost Gray in January and Jones suffered her injury last Sunday at Notre Dame. The Blue Devils played their first game without Jones and Gray on Thursday night, beating Wake Forest 71-56 on senior night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“I don’t think we’re surprised at all that we could win without them,” Duke senior forward Haley Peters said. “We have a lot of really talented players. I think it was more about seeing how it was going to look, and how it was going to fit together in our new season that we’re in because we are a different team without those two.”

As was the case with the Duke-UNC game at Cameron Indoor Stadium last month, No. 14 UNC (21-8, 9-6) will enter the game on a losing streak.

For the first meeting, the Tar Heels had lost a season-high three games in a row before it came into Cameron and left with an 89-78 win.

“I think everybody was really excited to play them,” sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel said. “Everybody was on the same page, and I just think the biggest thing was everybody was extremely intense and everybody was hyped.”

Now UNC has dropped two in a row heading into the rematch. The Tar Heels suffered a shocking 50-47 loss last Sunday to Virginia Tech, which had been at the bottom of the ACC standings. Then UNC lost to undefeated Notre Dame 100-75 on Thursday.

The inconsistent results may not be surprising considering the team’s youth. McDaniel, who averages 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds, is the oldest player among the team’s top four in points and rebounds. The other three are freshmen — Diamond DeShields (17.7 points, 5.5 rebounds), Allisha Gray (14.5 points, 5.4 rebounds) and Stephanie Mavunga (11.1 points, 8.4 rebounds).

DeShields scored 30 points and Gray added 24 in their first appearance at Cameron. Later that week, DeShields had a school freshmen record with 38 points and Gray added 18 in a win at No. 10 N.C. State. But last weekend the duo combined to shoot just 4 of 26 in the upset loss to the Hokies, who had never won at UNC in nine previous games.

The Tar Heels will need the freshmen to be more productive if they want to end the regular season with another win against their biggest rival.

“The season has been up and down,” McDaniel said. “A lot of good wins, a lot of tough losses. We just want to go out with a bang.”