CHAPEL HILL — This season has reached a critical point for the North Carolina women's basketball team.
Following a loss to Maryland on Friday, the Tar Heels (19-9, 9-6 ACC) - who fell from the national rankings weeks ago - host No. 7 Duke (24-4, 14-1) today in their final regular-season game at Carmichael Arena. They are facing what appears to be a "must-win" as this week's ACC tournament starts on Thursday, followed by the NCAA tournament.
With just one signature win - a 65-63 victory over No. 5 Miami on Jan. 2 - the Heels appear to need wins in their upcoming games, including a possible run into the late rounds of the league tournament.
"They are real critical," North Carolina junior Tierra Ruffin-Pratt said. "We have to come out and play hard. Hopefully we can come out with a lot of energy, enthusiasm, play with a lot of heart, get the win (over Duke). Then roll over into the post season, ACC tournament. Make a run there and play our first two games on our home court for the NCAA tournament."
The Tar Heels host the NCAA tournament first and second rounds on March 18 and 20, but with an NCAA RPI of 79 there's no guarantee that the selection committee will see fit to place them in the field of 64 teams.
Heels still have a shot
Yet the Heels have been here before with longtime coach Sylvia Hatchell. Others have counted them out before.
They have won nine ACC tournaments and have been to the NCAA tournament ever year since the 2000-01 season.
Last season, the Tar Heels reached the ACC tournament finals, falling 81-66 to Duke.
"Who would want to see North Carolina on their side of the bracket ever in the ACC tournament?" ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli said. "They've had so much success. Coach Hatchell has always had a sort of crescendo affect with the tournament. They are always playing their best basketball going into the ACC tournament."
Over the past two weeks, Hatchell has said that her team - one plagued by injuries earlier in the season - is slowly learning how to play together.
Ruffin-Pratt returned to the roster on Jan. 5 after missing 13 games with a shoulder injury. Junior center Waltiea Rolle returned to the team in December after giving birth.
"They've gotten healthier, so they've been able to get deeper," Antonelli said. "That has allowed them to play at a little bit higher level defensively and in transition, which are their two things. They've got to be able to play in transition. "
The Tar Heels are averaging 69.5 points per game - fifth-best in the conference. They are allowing 60.1 points - fifth-best scoring defense in the conference.
"You just have to take pride, ownership in how we play," Ruffin-Pratt said. "Definitely show more than tell. Talking is not going to get us anywhere. We have to play."
Added senior center Chay Shegog: "Winning. That's the main thing. We have to win a game. We have to play together and win the last couple ballgames."
The Tar Heels have won the past four home games over the Blue Devils and are 26-9 in the series on their home court.
Duke won the first meeting this season 96-56 at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 6. The Blue Devils have won three straight since last season's home game. They have secured the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament and a share of the conference regular season title.
A win against UNC would clinch the outright title for Duke. A win for the Tar Heels could mean much more.