Chapel Hill — Time and again this season, the North Carolina womens basketball team failed to outmuscle opponents. They were shoved off-balance on the wing, moved in the paint and beat to loose balls.
Not on Sunday. The Tar Heels - having lost seven of their past eight games entering the contest at Carmichael Arena - decided to get tough with their rivals Duke, which had dismantled them on Feb. 8 with a jackhammer effort.
This time it was the Heels (18-10, 6-8) pounding pavement in a 64-54 victory over the Blue Devils ( in the teams final regular season game. In a game where two of their players fouled and another was ejected, the Heels survived in a gritty way they had not been able to over the past three weeks.
We knew if we had a chance, we had to match their physicality out there, UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. Thats what I challenged the players to do. Just match it.
Boxing out post players and closing out on shooters, the Heels ruffled the Devils down the stretch after rallying in the second half. They pulled ahead 45-44 near the 10-minute mark on a steal-and-score play by junior guard Cetera DeGraffenreid. They slowly built on their lead, finding their fastbreak style and filling the basket, something they had not been able to do over the past three weeks.
DeGraffenreid led the Heels with a game-high 22 points, making 15 of 17 free throw attempts. She attacked the basket with relentless intent, helping to make Senior Day a bit more enjoyable on what was Hatchells 58th birthday.
This is the best present Ill ever have, said Hatchell, whose team is 46-32 all-time against the Devils.
With the start of the ACC Tournament this week, the Heels are seeded eighth and face ninth-seeded Maryland on Thursday at 3 p.m. If they win, they advance to face the top-seeded Devils on Friday at 3 p.m.
It was just the second conference loss of the season for the Devils, who closed out the ACC schedule as the regular-season champions with Florida State. They are challenging for their first ACC Tournament title since 2004.
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said her players didnt stay together late in the game and there were lessons to build upon. The Devils finished Sunday game with a season-low field goal percentage (26.4) and made just 3 of 22 3-point attempts. Junior Karima Christmas led the Devils with 14 points and seven rebounds, while junior Jasmine Thomas added 11 points, seven rounds, six assists and three steals.
Thomas, the teams leading scorer, was 4-for-16 from the field, and was stifled in the second half by what appeared to be a box-and-1 by the Heels.
Senior forward Trinity Bursey shadowed Thomas for much the second half and often denied her the ball. The Heels seemed to rattle the Devils, though McCallie said her team didnt lose its composure.
You have to let this game go, but you cant play like this again, Duke senior Joy Cheek said. We didnt come ready. We got punched and we didnt punch back. So when youre in a tournament - NCAA, ACC - its one and done.
UNC post players Chay Shegog and Waltiea Rolle fouled out in the second half, while Cierra Robertson-Warren was ejected with 13:03 remaining after she was called for a foul against Dukes Karima Christmas.
McCallie said the ejection, where Christmas landed on the floor, appeared to be justified after it was explained to her.
Hatchell said she could not explain what happen with Robertson-Warren until she watched the film of the incident. They told me that she put her elbow in her neck and they thought she did it intentionally, Hatchell said. I dont know.
Aside from the injection, Hatchell said she liked the way her team hustled and looks for them to carry that mentality into the post-season.
ACC Tournament look out here we come, she said.
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