For younger players, Devils-Heels rivalry has meaning

Despite less national attention, game is paramount

erobinson@newsobserver.comFebruary 6, 2012 

Duke's and North Carolina's women's basketball teams have met 81 times since 1975.

Their rivalry, steeped in history and fueled by dogged competitiveness, drew national television audiences and played out as a high-stake drama - some years three times during a season.

"There were a few years where there were no doubts that that was the marquee matchup," ESPN play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins said. "Between the Beards and Curries and Lattas and Littles, that was the place to be, the game of the season nationwide."

Now?

"Now it's certainly taken a bit of a dip," added Mowins, who tonight will call the 7 p.m. game between the rivals at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Mowins said for outside observers the game holds less meaning than previous seasons, even with both teams ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 - No. 5 Duke and No. 23 North Carolina - and both programs attracting some of the nation's top recruits.

Mowins listed several reasons for the decline, including the change among star players, the team's recent poor finishes against Connecticut, the rise of programs like Maryland and Miami in the ACC and the natural ebb and flow of such rivalries.

Others disagree.

"It's Carolina-Duke," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "It's more of the competitiveness of two great teams out there playing. The athleticism that's on the floor. It's fun to play."

The teams have split wins during the regular season over the past two seasons.

Without a doubt, Mowins said the game remains special for players. Younger players from both teams, she said, must re-ignite the excitement in the rivalry with fiercely competitive games - perhaps like UNC's 62-60 victory in their first meeting last season.

"That's a big part of getting a rivalry back to the highest level," Mowins said.

Between the two teams, there are nine freshmen and six sophomores. They say the rivalry remains intense and important.

Duke's young players helped lift the Devils to an ACC tournament victory over UNC last season.

"We get excited for it because of all the history that's behind it," Duke sophomore Haley Peters said.

Duke freshman center Elizabeth Williams admired the game from a far. Both teams recruited her, but she felt more comfortable with the Devils.

She surmised early that the game is "a big deal still."

"It's like basically embedded in you that you have to beat them," Williams said. "No matter what."

Duke sophomore Richa Jackson learned during freshman orientation about the appropriate way to greet UNC fans.

"It's kind of crazy," Jackson said. "Right when you get into it, it's like, 'Rivalry. We hate them.' "

"They don't like us, we don't like them," said UNC junior Candace Wood, who grew up in Charlotte and whose father, Al Wood, played for the Tar Heels' basketball team.

This week, the men's teams will meet Wednesday.

Both women's basketball coaches downplay the rivalry's impact on coaches.

"It's a rivalry," Duke's Joanne P. McCallie said. "It exists. But it's for the fans. For us, we've got work to do. ... You appreciate the fan's support in terms of the people that come to Cameron. We have some of the biggest crowds in the ACC and one of the reasons why is we have a special rivalry game."

Walking around campus, UNC freshman Brittany Rountree, a native of Winterville, Fla., observed some of the tradition. She listened to the trash talk from those who wore "Beat Duke" T-shirts.

"I know it's going to be intense," Rountree said. "I'm ready. It's no mercy."

Players sometimes are torn by the rivalry. In the offseason and weeks before conference play, members of both teams visit with one another on campus. They swap phone calls and text messages.

"We're kind of good friends," Jackson said. "But you know it's a whole different level on the court."

Robinson: 919-829-4781

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