Freshman leads Duke to crown
Pressure to replace an all-American was one thing for freshman Alexis Jones.
Pressure to make her family’s long trip to see her play enjoyable was another.
The Duke guard easily passed both tests.
Jones was named the ACC Tournament most valuable player Sunday after scoring 24 points in No. 6 Duke’s 92-73 win over No. 15 North Carolina for the ACC championship at Greensboro Coliseum.
Jones, who averaged 17.7 points per game in Duke’s three ACC Tournament wins, is thriving as the Blue Devils soldier on without Chelsea Gray, the ACC’s co-player of the year who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 17.
“Duke is a great team,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “I don’t know how much better they can play than they did today. From what I can see they are probably a better team out there with Alexis Jones than they were with Chelsea Gray. They are doing a lot of things at the point that they weren’t doing when Chelsea Gray was out there.”
Jones, a Texas native, is a big reason, which thrilled the 10 family members in attendance for this weekend’s tournament. That included her father, David Jones, who traveled from Texas despite being confined to a wheelchair due to injuries suffered in a 2007 car accident.
“It was just exciting knowing I have family in the stands to support me,” Jones said. “To get the win is better (than winning MVP) because they drove a long way to come watch three games. So just winning is what’s exciting.”
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie isn’t ready to say the Blue Devils (30-2) are better without Gray. But she did allow
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that Jones’ development is special.
“She has a really great, great sense of the game and she enjoys her teammates very much,” McCallie said. “They feed off each other. Her poise is incredible and her willingness to listen is really amazing. We’re really proud of Lex and her performance.”
Jones ran a Duke offense that clipped along at a near-record pace. The Blue Devils shot 57 percent, the most for an ACC Tournament finalist since North Carolina shot a record 59 percent in 1984.
Duke sophomore center Elizabeth Williams matched Jones with 24 points while junior forward Haley Peters scored 17. Peters, despite battling foul trouble, made her first seven shots.
The Blue Devils shot 64 percent after halftime, their best second-half shooting of the season.
Meanwhile, North Carolina (28-6) shot just 30 percent while producing only five assists.
“Alexis has done a great job but they are so skilled, especially offensively, and that makes their defense better because they are so skilled offensively,” Hatchell said.
McCallie praised her team for playing the kind of defense that is most successful in the postseason.
“There was a lot of broken play defense,” McCallie said. “In broken-play defense, you have to make people off balance, take quick shots that are outside of their comfort. I think we did. It also disrupted any chance they had for assists. That’s a big key in tournament play is broken-play defense and being able to communicate and talk even when the match-ups aren’t right in transition. I thought we were outstanding.”
UNC shot well in the game’s first minutes, with guard Latifah Coleman coming off the bench to score seven early points as the Tar Heels took a 16-10 lead with 12:31 left until halftime.
But the Tar Heels would make only two more field goals the rest of the half as they shot 28.6 percent over the first 20 minutes. During a 15-minute stretch that bridged the first and second halves, UNC missed 25 of 28 shots and Duke’s lead zoomed to 49-26.
“We started out pretty good, and then we started missing some shots, and they were able to get the ball inside and Elizabeth was able to do some of her damage early on,” Hatchell said. “We get in these spells where we’re getting some pretty good shots, but we’re missing them.”
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, having been held scoreless in the first half, finished with 25 points to lead UNC. Coleman and Waltiea Rolle had 10 points each as the Tar Heels dropped their seventh consecutive game to Duke.
Both Duke and UNC will now wait until the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced on March 18 to learn their next opponents. The Blue Devils know they will be playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium, which is a host site for first and second-round games.
Jones led three Duke players on the first-team all-ACC Tournament squad.
She was joined by Williams and Peters. Ruffin-Pratt of UNC and Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas rounded out the team.
The second team included Duke’s Tricia Liston, Wake Forest’s Chelsea Douglas and Maryland’s Tianna Hawkins along with UNC teammates Coleman and Rolle.
Jones is the third freshman to be named ACC Tournament MVP. She follows Maryland’s Deanna Tate (1986) and Duke’s Monique Currie (2002).
No. 6 DUKE 92, No. 15 UNC 73
Percentages: FG .300, FT .897. 3-Point Goals: 5-17, .294 (Coleman 2-6, Rountree 2-6, Ruffin-Pratt 1-1, McDaniel 0-1, Gross 0-1, Buckland 0-2). Team Rebounds: 6. Blocked Shots: 5 (Rolle 2, McDaniel 2, Coleman). Turnovers: 14 (Ruffin-Pratt 5, Coleman 3, Rountree 2, McDaniel 2, Butts 2). Steals: 11 (Ruffin-Pratt 3, Rolle 2, McDaniel 2, Butts 2, Rountree, Coleman). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .569, FT .815. 3-Point Goals: 4-9, .444 (Peters 1-1, Jones 1-1, Wells 1-2, Liston 1-4, Jackson 0-1). Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked Shots: 3 (Williams 2, Vernerey). Turnovers: 18 (Liston 4, Williams 4, Jones 4, Wells 2, Johnson, Peters, Jackson, Vernerey). Steals: 9 (Jones 4, Williams 3, Wells, Jackson). Technical Fouls: None.
Officials—Dee Kantner, Denise Brooks, Eric Brewton.