Duke's Chelsea Gray, bottom left, and Georgia Tech's Mo Bennett, bottom right, wrestle for control of a loose ball as Georgia Tech's Alex Montgomery, top, closes in during the first half. CHUCK BURTON - AP
updated 6:30 p.m.
GREENSBORO -- Georgia Tech threw full-court presses, zones and everything else it had in its defensive arsenal at the Duke women’s basketball team.
None of those tactics worked against the top-seeded Blue Devils, who were slowed down but ultimately overcame the feisty fifth-seeded Yellow Jackets with a 74-66 victory in the semifinals of the ACC women’s basketball tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Duke (28-3) started with a blazing offensive first half, opening a 10-point halftime lead, but distinguished itself defensively in the second half when the game grew tight over the final six minutes. The Yellow Jackets (23-10) remained within striking distance until the final seconds.
A steal on the left baseline by freshman Chelsea Gray put the Devils on top 71-66 with 35.5 seconds remaining. A rebound in the lane by Gray with 11 seconds left led to an outlet pass to senior Jasmine Thomas, who finished with a layup and helped her team close out a pesky opponent.
“You can’t give any team life,” Gray said of the finish. “You just have to shut them out.”
The defending champion Devils advanced to their fourth straight tournament championship game. They downed Wake Forest in the first round, Georgia Tech on Saturday and now will face North Carolina in Sunday’s final.
The schools split their two regular season meetings – the Devils winning at home in their final regular season finale on Feb. 27 – and now renew their tournament rivalry.
Duke enters Sunday’s game with the confidence of a team that has figured out how to win no matter the scenario. What have they learned about themselves?
“Definitely that we’re focused and we’re going to push through,” said Duke senior Karima Christmas, who led the team with a 20-points, six-rebound performance against Georgia Tech. “Even [Friday] when it was – you know, the lead was kind of a big margin – but we still executed down the stretch. We didn’t play down to the scoreboard. ... We just kept on pushing and doing what we wanted to do to get better for the next game.”
Duke senior Jasmine Thomas credited the team’s schedule where it has faced nine ranked teams.
“I know we go back to it a lot, but our schedule for the entire season has really prepared us for these games,” she said. “That’s something you see throughout this tournament is that no one is surprised by any circumstance. We just come in and keep subbing, and people come in, and they’re ready to play.”
The Devils own six ACC tournament titles, winning five consecutive between 2000-04. They will now play in the championship game in 10 of the past 12 seasons.
Georgia Tech never made it easy on Saturday, pulling to within two points with 7:09 remaining. But Duke’s Christmas hit a jump shot and the Devils were able to fend off the Yellow Jackets.
Christmas, whose production this season has fluctuated, emerged in colossal form, drawing praise from her coach for driving hard to the basket, drawing fouls and making 5 of 6 free throws.
“I think I have an understanding for when I need to help my team get better,” Christmas said. “Whether it’s passing, rebounding, hitting shots, I was just trying to be aggressive [Saturday].”
Duke has now won 33 consecutive games over the Yellow Jackets since 1994. Saturday’s victory followed the same script as many of those other contest as the Devils found their shooting range – 68 percent from the floor in the first half – and found a way to win despite being outrebounded 36-26.
In a game between the league’s top two scoring defenses, the Devils showed their versatility. They mixed in zones and caused fits.
“Duke’s zones have caused everybody in the country problems,” Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph said. “It’s a one-two-two matchup. They’re extremely long in the back, and they’re extremely long up top. And their athleticism, they really pressure the ball. It’s not a typical zone – it’s not a passive zone. ... They do a great job of covering space and finding shooters.”