Barry Jacobs

Duke women enjoy slush fun

Posted March 2, 2009

Outside the rain yielded to slush, a sloppy mix of much-needed rain and unsettling snow. Inside soldout Cameron Indoor Stadium, the final women’s game of the regular season similarly yielded to a form of basketball slush, a sloppy mix of turnovers and missed shots.

Still, if you can’t have a well-played game, a closely fought contest will do. That’s what the Duke and North Carolina women provided, extending to overtime before the Blue Devils emerged with an 81-79 win. “I love that it was overtime, I love the time and score we got through,” said Joanne P. McCallie, the Duke coach. “I think it’s a great game to move from and build from, and gives us great energy.”

The victory also gave the Devils an 11-3 ACC record and the third seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament at Greensboro, potentially placing them on a path that avoids a matchup with top seed Maryland until the finals. Preseason favorite UNC, the four-time defending league champions, is 10-4, seeded fourth in the same bracket as the Terrapins.

“This may be a blessing in disguise,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said hopefully of her team’s loss in a game defined by fierce effort, numerous lead changes, and staggering statistics. Ninth-ranked UNC had 33 turnovers, a season high. Tenth-ranked Duke had 32 offensive rebounds, a season high. The Blue Devils made a measly 10 of 40 shots in the second half. Duke also had 23 steals, more than any team managed all season against Hatchell’s club.

Tar Heel guard Cetera DeGraffenreid entered the game as the ACC leader in ratio of assists to turnovers. She also has the distinction of sporting the largest headband in the league, a white swath that covers her forehead like a bandage. On this night DeGraffenreid had one assist compared to eight turnovers, a devastating departure from form against the ACC’s top-rated field goal percentage defense.

On the other side of the ball, Duke guard Abbie Waner, an aspiring television broadcaster, was as unsteady launching shots as DeGraffenreid was handling the ball. Waner misplaced her jumper several years ago. Last season she made 32.7 percent of her shots, 26.1 percent on 3-pointers. This season Waner was hitting 33.0 percent from the floor, 28 percent on threes, before missing 14 of 16 field goal attempts against the Heels.

Fittingly, or oddly, as you prefer, both struggling players proved central to the game’s dramatic finish.

UNC had been the victor in each of four previous meetings since McCallie took over the Duke program last season. On this night, however, the 25-5 Tar Heels were the pursuers, repeatedly falling behind by as many as 10 points.

Yet, despite an extended chase and a crippling rash of turnovers, the ACC's top-scoring club appeared poised to beat Duke for the fifth time in a row after Chay Shegog’s free throw built a 67-61 edge at the 2:01 mark. Four seconds later McCallie called timeout to rally her squad, while the large, boisterous contingent of Tar Heel fans behind the visiting bench raised a celebratory ruckus.

“You know how games are, as coaches,” said McCallie, whose team finished 14-0 at Cameron, with wins over No. 3 Stanford and No. 5 Maryland along the way. “Games are games, and they break different ways. But this team made this game break a certain way under extreme adversity.”

This time of year college programs bid adieu to seniors, in Duke’s case starters Chante Black, Careem Gay, and Waner. Sometimes a final appearance before the home faithful sparks a defining performance. Certainly that was the case for Gay, who had 15 points and a dozen rebounds, nine on offense, the board efforts tying career highs. “I just wanted to have fun, our team wanted to have fun and beat Carolina on our home court,” said the New Yorker. “And it worked out for us.”

Gay provided a crucial basket as the Devils fought to stave off defeat, a jumper from the free throw area that cut UNC’s margin to four with 1:18 to go. Two seconds later Gay stole the ball from DeGraffenreid, resulting in a layup at the 1:14 mark by Duke’s Bridgette Mitchell. That made it a two-point game.

On Carolina’s next possession senior Rashanda McCants, who led all scorers with 24 points, missed a driving layup after a running start. That left it to Duke’s sophomore point guard, Jasmine Thomas, to make a short bank shot to tie the score at 67-67 with 19.9 seconds left.

UNC played for the last shot, but got only a hurried, driving layup by DeGraffenreid that missed as time expired in regulation.

Thomas, whom McCants called “a great hustle player,” kept scoring for Duke -- 17 of her team-high 19 points came in the second half and overtime. Still, a 3-point play by Shegog, a formidable, 6-5 freshman, put the Heels ahead 76-75 with 1:45 remaining in the extra period.

Almost exactly a minute later, following a Duke miss and yet another DeGraffenreid turnover, Waner let fly and hit a 3-pointer, giving her team the lead for good. She had missed 14 straight shots after making a three in the game’s opening minutes. “I’d say it was a pretty good way to go out,” Waner offered after her team improved to 24-4.

Or, as a less restrained Black said following the game to happy Duke fans, a group that included men's players Miles Plumlee, Kyle Singler, and still-headachy Nolan Smith, sidelined by a concussion:  “This is like the best senior night ever.”

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