No. 16 Duke women rally, then hold off No. 15 UNC for 81-80 win

Duke’s Ka'lia Johnson (14) reacts as the Blue Devils come from 11 points down in the second half against the Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke’s Ka'lia Johnson (14) reacts as the Blue Devils come from 11 points down in the second half against the Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Duke freshman Azura Stevens said she didn’t take it personally when her North Carolina opponents hand-picked her to take free throws during the closing seconds.

After all, the Cary High product came into Sunday’s traditional regular-season finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium shooting just 56 percent from the line.

No matter. In a game that featured long comeback runs from both teams, Stevens hit one of two with 29 seconds left for a two-point lead and two more with two seconds to go to stretch it to four as the No. 16 Blue Devils nipped the No. 15 Tar Heels 81-80 to sweep their season series.

It was the 100th ACC win for eighth-year Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, who achieved the milestone faster than anyone else in conference history.

Duke won the teams’ first meeting of the season 74-67 in overtime Jan. 25 in Chapel Hill.

Sunday’s result snapped a three-game losing streak for Duke (20-9, 11-5). UNC (23-7, 10-6) leads the all-time series 49-42.

Duke secured the No. 4 seed in the ACC tournament in Greensboro and will play at 11 a.m. Friday against the survivor of Thursday’s game between Syracuse and Wednesday’s Boston College-Wake Forest winner.

UNC is seeded No. 6 and will play at 8 p.m. Thursday against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Georgia Tech and Clemson.

Duke started all four seniors: center Elizabeth Williams, guards Ka’lia Johnson and former walk-on Jenna Frush, and forward Amber Henson, who still has eligibility remaining because of injury redshirts.

Stevens, who finished with game highs of 21 points and 12 rebounds for her eighth double-double of the season, led four Duke players in double figures. Rebecca Greenwell scored 19, Williams 18 and Henson 10 as Duke tied a season high with 52 second-half points.

“I don’t think anything fancy happened at halftime,” said McCallie, whose team trailed 40-29 at intermission before a 34-8 run forced a desperate UNC comeback late.

“We talked and tried to figure out some things. We were a little perturbed, but at the same time very focused and knowing we’ve been in this position before.

“We had some great stops in some tough situations. There was a lot of fight and resolve and attitude, and that’s really, really important down the stretch.”

McCallie said the Tar Heels picked the wrong player to foul when they sent Stevens to the line.

“Well, my stats haven’t been good,” Stevens said with a smile. “I was just focusing on making the first one and then the second one. I really had confidence in myself that I could make them.”

Allisha Gray’s 20 points led five players in double figures for the Tar Heels, who tied a school record by hitting 14 (of 26) 3-point attempts. Jessica Washington added 19 points, Latifah Coleman 14, Stephanie Mavunga 11 and Brittany Rountree 10.

“Our defense in the second half was supposed to be just like the first half,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “We had some breakdowns and got really rattled on offense, which hurt our defense.

“I knew it was going to be a game of runs. I told them in the locker room (at halftime) what was going to happen. Duke’s size really bothered us, and it was an extremely physical game. We need to get tougher.”

Duke shot 51.8 percent for the game to UNC’s 43.8 and won the rebound battle 39-32. The Blue Devils committed 23 turnovers to UNC’s 22.

“It’s really important for us to end the conference really well, because we haven’t been doing that recently,” Williams said. “It was definitely a big win.”

The Tar Heels trailed 63-48 with 9 minutes, 15 seconds left before Washington hit two straight 3-pointers to get their stretch rally going. They cut the margin to 78-77 with 34 seconds left on a Mavunga follow shot, and then after a timeout North Carolina fouled Stevens to set up two free throws.

Gray missed a layup with three seconds to go, with Stevens rebounding and going to the line for the clinchers before Gray added a long 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“We tried to really take care of the ball,” Washington said of the comeback. “And we focused on one possession at a time and tried not to turn the ball over. But this one is hard.”