Duke, UNC open ACC Tournament play in quarterfinals today
For the fourth consecutive year, Duke enters the ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament as the top seed.
Unlike a year ago, the Blue Devils hope their stay lasts longer than one day.
After losing in the quarterfinals last season, Duke gets begins this year’s ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum today (2 p.m., Fox Sports South) against No. 8 N.C. State, a 56-45 winner over Clemson Thursday.
Also tonight, No. 3 seed North Carolina opens tournament play against No. 11 Boston College (8 p.m., Fox Sports South), a 66-57 upset winner over No. 6 Virginia Thursday.
N.C. State upset top-seeded Duke in last year’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal and the Blue Devils who took that quiet bus ride home haven’t forgotten how it felt.
“I know nobody was talking,” Duke junior guard Tricia Liston said. “Everyone was pretty upset. It was even worse once we got back (to campus). That’s not how we wanted to end up…Not letting it happen again is big in our minds right now. I don’t think we had the focus that we needed last year.”
Many of this year’s Blue Devils, Liston included, remember what it’s like to have a successful run in Greensboro as well. Duke (27-2, 17-1) won the ACC Tournament in 2010 and 2011 as the top seed.
This year’s Duke team is dealing with the loss of Co-ACC Player of the year Chelsea Gray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 17. The Blue Devils have won three of four games without her, including last Sunday’s 65-58 win over North Carolina.
Freshman guard Alexis Jones, a starter throughout the season, has assumed more play-making duties in Gray’s absence. Gray remains a constant presence on the bench and in practices, tutoring the younger Jones.
“Chelsea is like a big sister to me, so during timeout, she says, ‘Okay Alexis, I see this, this and this,’ and I just listen to her and I just feed off the energy,” Jones said.
Sophomore center Elizabeth Williams, an all-ACC first-team pick, said Blue Devils coach Joanne P. McCallie’s message to the team for the postseason is simple and direct, “Just to fight at this point,” Williams said. “We have been through a lot and I think that as long as we play hard and fight together we are capable of a lot.”
McCallie was named ACC coach of the year Thursday.
No matter what happens this weekend in Greensboro, the No. 5-ranked Blue Devils will open NCAA Tournament play March 24 at Cameron Indoor Stadium since Duke is one of 16 sites for the first and second rounds.
But the Blue Devils, who have made the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight each of the last three seasons, are intent on entering this year’s tournament with plenty of momentum.
“It’s about us bringing that energy and making the transition from the regular season,” McCallie said. “The regular season is by far the toughest to win. But the tournament is a blast. It’s fun to win and we’ve had that experience.”
After missing the NCAA Tournament last year, No. 15 UNC (26-5, 14-4) faced lower expectations this season. Yet despite the absence of a star player, the Tar Heels finished tied for second in the ACC with Maryland and received the No. 3 seed.
“I think a lot of people when you look at our team, you think, well, how are they 26-5?” said UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell, who won her 900th career game last month. “At the beginning of the year we had no one on the preseason all-ACC team. I mean, you didn’t see a name listed with North Carolina anywhere.
”So these kids have really worked hard, and we are very balanced. I’m not saying this to be critical, but I’m just saying the balance of our team is the fact that we’ve had 16 or 17 weeks of ACC Players of the Week, and we haven’t had anybody yet. I think that, again, just shows the balance of our team.”
UNC’s success eventually brought accolades. In her first year as a point guard, senior Tierra Ruffin-Pratt was named first-team all-ACC after leading the team in scoring (14.4), assists (4.4) and steals (2.6), while freshman Xylina McDaniel averaged 12.4 points and 7.2 rebounds and was named the ACC’s rookie of the year.
Senior center Walteia Rolle ranks 10th in conference history in career blocks (243) and was named to the ACC all-defensive team, while senior small forward Krista Gross finished fourth in the ACC in rebounding (8.6).