By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — The No. 18 North Carolina women left little question that they have the momentum to put together a memorable March by finishing off their first regular-season sweep of Duke in eight years.
The Tar Heels were already punishing Duke with their inside attack, so when a few perimeter shots finally fell, it became an impressive 74–46 senior day romp Sunday in front of a raucous, season-high 5,230 fans at Carmichael Arena.
Thanks to regular-season ACC champion N.C. State’s 68–66 win Sunday night over Virginia Tech, Carolina (23–5, 13–5 ACC) gets a double-bye in the ACC Tournament for the first time since the event expanded in 2014. The Tar Heels play at 11 a.m. Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum in the quarterfinals as the tournament’s No. 4 seed (regional sports networks).
UNC, which has its highest ACC Tournament seed since it was the No. 3 seed in 2013, will play the winner of Thursday’s 11 a.m. second-round game between the Hokies (21–8, 13–5) and the winner of Wednesday’s 1 p.m. first-round game between Syracuse (11–17, 4–14) and Clemson (9–20, 3–15).
Carolina coach Courtney Banghart still hopes that her team might earn a No. 4 NCAA tournament seed, which would mean first- and second-round games at Carmichael.
“We’re going to be a tough out because of how they compete, how they play together and how many weapons we have and how locked we are to our defensive game plan,” Banghart said. “I just think this team has deserved a host to play in front of Carmichael again.”
The Tar Heels, whose last previous sweep of Duke (16–12, 7–11) was in the 2013–14 season when they last won 23 regular-season games, have flipped control of the rivalry after losing 12 of the previous 13 meetings before this season. The Blue Devils, who lost to UNC 78–62 in Durham on Jan. 27, have lost five of their last six games and fell behind in the all-time series 52–51.
Anya Poole (15 points and seven rebounds), Alyssa Ustby (15 points and eight rebounds) and Kennedy Todd-Williams (14 points and six rebounds) helped the Tar Heels outscore Duke 32–20 inside. They have outrebounded their opponents for eight consecutive games (51–35 against the Blue Devils). It was the seventh game this season that UNC has had at least 50 rebounds.
UNC’s offense is efficient against Duke, with the fewest turnovers in a game this season six in the win in Durham and seven on Sunday.
The seniors made it memorable, with starter Carlie Littlefield (second from right in top photo) putting up her first double-double as a Tar Heel with 10 points, a career-high 10 rebounds and five assists and reserve Jaelynn Murray (far right in top photo) scoring a season-high seven points.
“The crowd tonight was amazing and we killed Duke, so there’s nothing much more I can ask for on my senior day,” said Littlefield, who had no idea she was close to double-figure rebounds.
Banghart and Littlefield have relished being reunited this season after they enjoyed two seasons together at Princeton.
“I was honestly crushed when she told me that she was leaving to come here. And then I never in a million years thought I’d be able to come here,” Littlefield said. “I can’t put into words the kind of impact she’s had on me. I view her as my role model. She’s such a strong female leader and she’s done so much for me.”
Littlefield wrote a petition to the NCAA and hopes that she’s allowed to play another season at Carolina just like fellow MBA student Eva Hodgson, who transferred from William and Mary.
The problem for Littlefield is that the Ivy League didn’t play basketball last season.
“Just been waiting to hear back,” she said. “I don’t know much more than that. I wish I did. But still hoping that this wasn’t my last time in Carmichael.”
Murray was playing for only the second time in 11 games. Banghart said that Murray wasn’t fully cleared medically to play more than a minute here or there and that she wasn’t allowed to start Murray. Injuries have limited her to five games last season and 15 games this season.
“It was a joy to play,” said Murray, who has been dealing with inflammation in her right knee. “I was telling everybody else the moment was so surreal.”
After playing briefly late in the first half, Murray came in and sank a pair of fourth-quarter jumpers.
“I was just so proud of myself with everything I’ve been through that I stuck with it,” Murray said. “Most people can’t go through the things that I went through. So just those shots falling for me was just great because I’ve always been a shooter. I kind of think I’m a guard. That was just a great moment.”
UNC showed its offensive versatility by winning easily even with guards Deja Kelly (1 of 13, two points) and Hodgson (2 of 8, 5 points) combining to shoot 3 of 21 because the rest of the team shot 48.1%.
Part of that was Duke’s zone defense against UNC’s guards.
“They really decided they were going to take away our perimeter game and we have an unselfish group,” Banghart said. “When they were really extended, we were able to have openings in the paint. We’ve kind of prided ourselves all year that you can’t just take away one thing because we’ll go to something else.”
Poole, who has been banged up of late, took a nasty spill in the first half but came back strong in her best scoring game of the ACC season.
Banghart said that Poole’s offseason work on her adversity response and skill development has paid off.
“That kid put a lot of time in both of those areas, being able to be quicker to forget bad plays in order to get through adversity, as well as be better with her feet with pivots, extending her range a little bit,” Banghart said.
After Celeste Taylor’s 3-pointer for Duke in the first 30 seconds, Carolina scored the next 14 points, including four each from Ustby and Poole, before Taylor hit another 3. The Tar Heels led 16–8 after the first quarter.
The Tar Heels missed their first 11 3-point attempts before Todd-Williams sunk a corner 3 with 6:38 left in the first half to end a 6–0 Duke run that had trimmed the lead to four. That bucket started a 16–2 Carolina run, which included Littlefield’s four-point play, to give Carolina a 34–16 halftime edge.
Carolina held Duke to eight points in the first two quarters, giving the Tar Heels 23 quarters holding opponents to single-digits points this season. It was the third time this season UNC has held an opponent to single-digit points in both first-half quarters but the first time in ACC play. Duke had more turnovers (eight) and fouls (eight) in the first half than field goals (seven).
Duke’s eight second-quarter points tied for the second-fewest in a second quarter in program history. It was the 13th time this season that UNC has held an opponent to fewer than 50 points, matching the total by the 2006–07 team.
UNC was 2 of 16 from 3-point range in the first half and was 3 for 30 in the previous six quarters before making 4 of 10 second-half attempts.
“We know we don’t just need 3s to win,” Littlefield said. “I think it goes to both coaches and practice time to really build out our skills and it also goes back to us being connected. If somebody misses a shot, all four of us are there to give them a high-five and kind of pick them up. We pride ourselves on not just being one-dimensional, and we also know that our defense is always going to be there.”
Even when the perimeter shots aren’t falling, opponents have to respect the threat.
“We have so many people who can light it up from three that we draw them out to the perimeter and then Anya did a great job sealing inside and Lys did a great job sealing inside,” Littlefield said. “So, I think it started with us having a lot of threats from three.”
Three-pointers from Ustby and Todd-Williams ignited a 16–5 run to start the second half to push the lead to 29 and UNC led 56–26 entering the final quarter. With Carolina substituting liberally in the fourth quarter, Duke outscored UNC 20–18.
Taylor, who missed the first meeting because of injury, led Duke with 14 points and Shayeann Day-Wilson added 11.
The Blue Devils play at 3:30 Wednesday against Pittsburgh (11–18, 2–16).
No. 18 UNC 74, Duke 46
ACC Tournament bracket
ACC Tournament pairings
First Round — Wednesday
Game No. 1 — No. 12 Syracuse vs. No. 13 Clemson, 1 p.m. (RSN)
Game No. 2 — No. 10 Duke vs. No. 15 Pitt, 3:30 p.m. (RSN)
Game No. 3 — No. 11 Wake Forest vs. No. 14 Virginia, 6:30 p.m. (RSN)
Second Round — Thursday
Game No. 4 — No. 5 Virginia Tech vs. Winner of Game No. 1, 11 a.m. (RSN)
Game No. 5 — No. 8 Boston College vs. No. 9 Florida State, 2:30 p.m. (RSN)
Game No. 6 — No. 7 Miami vs. Winner of Game No. 2, 6 p.m. (RSN)
Game No. 7 — No. 6 Georgia Tech vs. Winner of Game No. 3, 8:30 p.m. (RSN)
Quarterfinals — Friday
Game No. 8 — No. 4 North Carolina vs. Winner of Game No. 4, 11 a.m. (RSN)
Game No. 9 — No. 1 NC State vs. Winner of Game 5, 2 p.m. (RSN)
Game No. 10 — No. 2 Louisville vs. Winner of Game No. 6, 6 p.m. (RSN)
Game No. 11 — No. 3 Notre Dame vs. Winner of Game No. 7, 8:30 p.m. (RSN)
Semifinals — Saturday
Game No. 12 — ACC Semifinal No. 1, noon (ACCN)
Game No. 13 — ACC Semifinal No. 2, 2:30 p.m. (ACCN)
Championship — Sunday
Game No. 14 – Championship Game, noon (ESPN)
day, time, TV
|December (6–0, 2–0 ACC)|
|1||82–76 win, 7–0||Road||Y — Minnesota|
|5||93–47 win, 8–0||Home||James Madison|
|12||107–46 win, 9–0||Home||UNC Asheville|
|19||76–63 win, 10–0, 1–0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|21||83–47 win, 11–0||Home||Alabama State|
|30||79–43 win, 12–0, 2–0||Home||Syracuse|
|January (4–4, 4–4 ACC)|
|2||81–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACC||Home||Clemson|
|6||72–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1||Road||No. 3 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, 14–1, 4–1||Home||No. 23 Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 14 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 22 Georgia Tech|
|27||78–62 win, 16–3, 6–3||Road||Duke|
|30||66–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4||Home||No. 3 N.C. State|
|February (7–1, 7–1 ACC)|
|3||78–59 win, 17–4, 7–4||Road||Wake Forest|
|6||85–38 win, 18–4, 8–4||Home||Miami|
|10||64–54 win, 19–4, 9–4||Home||Pittsburgh|
|13||66–61 loss, 19–5, 9–5||Road||No. 23 Virginia Tech|
|17||66–65 win, 20–5, 10–5||Home||No. 4 Louisville|
|20||64–49 win, 21–5, 11–5||Road||Florida State|
|24||68–57 win, 22–5, 12–5||Road||Virginia|
|27||74–46 win, 23–5, 14–5||Home||Duke|
|—— ACC Tournament ——|
|4||Friday, 11 a.m., RSN||Greensboro||Virginia Tech, |
Syracuse or Clemson
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications