Duke guard Jasmine Thomas cries tears of joy as teammate guard Tricia Liston hugs her at game's end. CHUCK LIDDY - firstname.lastname@example.org
DURHAM – The Duke women’s basketball program set the stage for the post-season with a senior night Jasmine Thomas, Krystal Thomas and Karima Christmas will not soon forget.
Filled with the emotion of the day, the No. 9 Blue Devils (26-3, 12-2 ACC) defeated their rivals North Carolina, regrouping in the second half for a tough yet convincing 66-58 victory before an ecstatic sell-out crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Handing the Tar Heels (22-7, 8-6) their fourth consecutive loss, the Devils punctuated a stellar regular-season – one in which they were undefeated at home – by capturing a share of the the ACC regular-season title for the second year in a row.
Duke must share that title with Miami, a winner at Georgia Tech on Sunday, but enter this week’s ACC women’s tournament as the No. 1 seed and defending champions.
Duke will play the winner of No. 8 seed Virginia and No. 9 seed Wake Forest on Friday.
With their family members in the stands, the Devils’ three seniors put aside their feelings until the final buzzer sounded. Only then did the tears start flowing.
“I honestly didn’t plan on crying at all before the game, but then when they lined us up to go out for senior night I was trying to fight back tears and just hold it together,” said Krystal Thomas, who stood side-by-side with her fellow seniors and spoke to the crowd through tears.
Jasmine Thomas, the team’s leading scorer, led the Devils with a game-high 17 points. Christmas added 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Krystal Thomas collected 13 rebounds and three steals.
It wasn’t the Devils’ most dominating performance, but they were certainly more poised in the second half, particularly defensively, than they had been in a 62-60 loss to the Heels on Feb. 7.
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said she like the way her players slowed down, enjoyed themselves on offense and made defensive stops when they needed them.
The victory sends the Devils into the ACC tournament with more confidence than they had two week ago after a loss to Maryland. They were composed on offense and looked like a team with seven wins over ranked teams this season.
“I think that’s something that’s good about senior night,” Jasmine Thomas said. “It brings all those emotions and all that energy together and everyone realizes you only get one chance to have this team. Going into the tournament it’s good to have this game because everyone is realizing this is our last chance to do something great with this team.”
Duke snapped a two game losing streak against the Heels and afterward cut down the nets.
The Devils took control of Sunday’s contest in the second half, surging ahead as the Heels missed high percentage shots, took low percentage shots, committed turnovers and moved a step too slow for rebounds.
A 3-pointer from the right arc by Jasmine Thomas pushed Duke’s game-changing run to 10-0 with 9 minutes, 35 seconds remaining. The game was no where near its close, yet the Devils moved comfortably into a 56-42 lead and seemed to punch the wind out of the Heels.
Passing and finding teammates, the Devils built steadily on that lead with jumpers from the wing and drives to the rim. Thomas, the team’s leading scorer, dribbled from the right baseline and snaked inside for a layup to put her team up 64-42 at the 2:59 mark.
The Heels, frustrated but undeterred, held their place in the game and with a three-point play by junior center Chay Shegog trailed just 64-58 with 1:29 left.
Duke, matching UNC’s physical style, made two free throws down the stretch and sealed the win.
“I was proud of how hard we played,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “I thought we really played really well in the first half. I thought we battled hard. There was a couple minutes in the second half we had a little bit of lapse. The rebounding, they came out a lot harder in the second half with rebounding.”
UNC senior guard Italee Lucas led the Heels with 15 points. She had six turnovers and shot 6-for-20 from the field. Junior Chay Shegog added 14 points and eight rebounds.
The Heels were disheartened but not dispirited.
“Like coach was saying, our defense,” Lucas said. “The little things, the chippy layups. Just the little things we have to pick up on. I mean we’re right there and the ACC tournament it’s a new season. So we’re going to into that with the mindset that it’s a new season.”