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ACC's best square off in much-anticipated showdown

Maryland and Duke will go head-to-head on Monday in the first of two regular season matchups between them this year. Both will be shown on ESPN 2.

Will Maryland's stars be enough overpower Duke?
Will Maryland's stars be enough overpower Duke?
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The wait is nearly over.

No. 7 Maryland (19-3, 10-1 ACC) and No. 5/4 Duke (21-1, 11-0 ACC), the top two teams in ACC women's basketball both by ranking and conference record, will meet at 7 p.m. Monday in Durham.

The past two seasons Maryland and Duke have split, with both teams winning on their home floors.

The teams figure to do the same again this year unless one of them can step up on the road. The Terps are a perfect 11-0 at home, but are definitely more vulnerable when they travel away from the friendly confines of College Park.

In the third game of the season they were shocked by Saint Joseph's (currently No. 45 in the RPI) in a a one-point loss in Philadelphia. They have also lost on the road to a couple of ranked teams, UConn and UNC. Neither of those two losses is is anything to be too ashamed of, but neither is going to add to the Terps' road confidence either.

What will give them confidence are their comfortable wins while visiting then ranked Nebraska and currently ranked Delaware. However, going into Durham is going to be a whole different animal that is probably only comparable to the UConn game.

Aside from this game being on Duke's home floor, the Blue Devils are also a very talented basketball team who are going to be tough to beat anywhere. The two things that really stand out about Duke that could give Maryland nightmares are their 3-point shooting ability and dominance when it comes to turnover margin.

As of games played through Thursday, The Blue Devils have the best 3-point shooting percentage in the nation at 43.7 percent and the sixth best turnover margin at 6.38.

While Duke's 1.6 more threes per game than Maryland may not seem like a lot, their efficiency from beyond the arc is scary and it is something the Terps are going to want to disrupt.

The Blue Devils basically have five 3-point shooters: Chloe Wells (20 for 36), Tricia Liston (46 for 96), Haley Peters (16 for 34), Chelsea Gray (19 for 46) and Alexis Jones (15 for 40). That gives Duke four players who have made at least 10 threes this year and are also shooting above 40 percent. Maryland has no such players.

The Terps' main priority is always to score in the paint, but look for them to work to get their sharpshooter Katie Rutan some open looks beyond the arc in this game just to cancel out Duke's impact in that area if necessary.

As far as defending the three, Maryland has some pretty capable perimeter defenders, starting with Alyssa Thomas who, as a small forward, may also have some duties defending closer to the basket. She of course made the last-second, game-saving block on a Peters 3-point attempt the last time these two teams met, which was on Feb. 19, 2012 at Comcast Center. The Terps won that contest, 63-61, thanks to Thomas' block.

The stats support the argument that Maryland can defend the three pretty well. The Terps are third in the ACC this year in 3-point percentage defense, holding their opponents to 27.9 percent shooting from long range. So maybe they will be up for the challenge that the Blue Devils present in that department.

However, if the Terps can keep Duke's 3-point shooting in check, they still have to take care of the basketball because otherwise the Blue Devils will make them pay. Duke is fifth in the nation in steals per game with 13.1 and Gray, who averages 3.8 a game, is third individually.

When Maryland played UConn, who is right behind Duke at seventh in the nation in turnover margin, they turned the ball over 26 times and UConn was plus-9. It will be hard for the Terps to come away with a win in Durham if they have a similar outing against the Blue Devils.

On the other hand, one thing Maryland has going for them, as usual, is rebounding. The Terps and Blue Devils are first and second in the conference in rebound margin, but Maryland's margin (16.4) is nearly double Duke's (8.3).

In addition, Maryland may have a bit more star power than Duke. Tianna Hawkins and Thomas are first and second in the ACC in both scoring and rebounding (Hawkins is first in points and Thomas is first in rebounds).

To be fair, Gray and Elizabeth Williams are having great seasons too. The other three main statistical categories are all led by one of Duke's two stars. Gray leads the conference in steals, as well as assists (5.7 per game), and Williams leads in blocks (3 per game). As far as scoring and rebounding, Williams is averaging 14.9 and 7 and Gray is averaging 12.9 and 5.6.

But you would probably have to give the edge right now to Hakwins and Thomas. As a one two punch they are just about as good as it gets in the ACC right now, and Terp fans can be confident knowing that if one of them has a monster game Monday, it could propel Maryland to victory.

The question is how will the rest of Maryland's active players respond, knowing that Duke has four players averaging in double figures on the season to Maryland's two. The X-factor in this game could very well be whether or not the Terps can get a third player to step up, whether that be Alicia DeVaughn, Chloe Pavlech, Rutan or Malina Howard, to keep pace with Duke's third and fourth leading scorers, Liston and Peters.

All in all, Duke isn't really all that far ahead of Maryland. Both of these teams are on the outside looking in when it comes to the front-runners for the national championship. Although Duke has only lost one game this year, the way in which they lost that game is a sign that they probably still have work to do before they can be put in that category.

That's why a reasonable prediction would probably be for the Terps and Blue Devils to defend their home courts and split again this year. But both of them will put it all on the line to try and get that sweep, knowing that the first step toward being mentioned in the same breath as Baylor, UConn and Notre Dame is having the unquestioned upper hand in this battle for ACC supremacy.

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