No. 2 Fighting Irish women visit No. 3 Duke Sunday
For the second time this season, an unbeaten top-5 team visits Cameron Indoor Stadium to battle Duke.
The Blue Devils, while still wildly successful and accomplished, are a much different team now than when No. 1 Connecticut beat them 83-61 on Dec. 17.
The No. 3 Duke team that faces No. 2 Notre Dame in an ACC women’s basketball game Sunday (2 p.m., ESPN) is down an all-American player but quick to display newfound grit.
Duke (21-1, 8-0 in ACC) enters the game atop the ACC, just ahead of the Irish (20-0, 7-0). The Blue Devils are riding an 11-game winning streak even though senior Chelsea Gray, one of the nation’s top players, saw her season end Jan. 12 when she broke her right kneecap.
Before Gray’s injury, all but two of Duke’s wins had come by margins of 12 points or more. The only teams to lose by fewer than 10 points to the Blue Devils were No. 13 Kentucky, which Duke beat 69-61 on Dec. 22 at Lexington, Ky., and Oklahoma, a 94-85 loser to Duke on Dec. 8 in Norman, Okla.
But since Gray’s departure, the Blue Devils have been pushed a few times. Duke held off a game Virginia Tech squad, winning 74-70 at Blacksburg, Va., on Jan. 19.
“You have to be gritty,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “And I think we have become more gritty. We are better fighters.”
Four days later, the Blue Devils were forced to overtime before outlasting Florida State 85-77 at Tallahassee, Fla. On Thursday night, in their final game prior to facing Notre Dame, the Blue Devils won 76-75 at Miami when Elizabeth Williams sank a free throw with 1.7 seconds to play.
“Being on the road and coming up with the wins that we did,” Duke senior Tricia Liston said, “gave us the confidence that we can actually be in close games like that and we able to finish at the end. I think it’s really good for us. It’s only going to help us in the long run.”
ACC rivals for the first time this season, Duke and Notre Dame have only played twice in the last 10 years. In 2011, in a tournament in the Virgin Islands, the Irish rallied to knock off Duke 56-54.
Last April 2, in the NCAA Tournament Norfolk Regional final, the Irish beat the Blue Devils 87-76 and advanced to the Final Four.
Skylar Diggins scored 24 points for Notre Dame that night. After Duke led by six points at halftime, Diggins spearheaded a 15-2 Irish run that turned the game in their favor for good.
Diggins has graduated and moved on to the WNBA, but McCallie said that’s not necessarily great news for her team.
“I think they might even be better this year than last year,” McCallie said. “Diggins is a great player. No doubt about that. But they seem to be more in cahoots with each other as opposed to looking around for somebody. So I’d say they are better.”