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Game of the Day: Duke, N.C. State battle for second place in the ACC

N.C. State faces Duke in Durham with a chance to make a statement that could help them in both national rankings and tournament seeding.

Duke's Richa Jackson & N.C. State's Kody Burke are seniors whose contributions to their teams are sometimes overlooked.
Duke's Richa Jackson & N.C. State's Kody Burke are seniors whose contributions to their teams are sometimes overlooked.
Photo by Mark Dolejs.

Duke Blue Devils (23-3) vs. North Carolina State Wolfpack (22-4)

6:30 p.m. EST

Cameron Indoor Stadium - Durham, N.C.

Online: WatchESPN

WBB State preview statistics

SB Nation blog: Backing the Pack

N.C. State fell to #14/16 in the rankings this year after losing to a North Carolina Tar Heels squad that got 38 points from Diamond DeShields on Sunday, which is a harsh fate when you look at what they've done over the course of the season compared to a few teams ahead of them.

But today, N.C. State has a chance to make a statement of their own when they face Duke for their first and last time of the regular season in a game that should be as significant on the national landscape as it is regionally.

With a win, the Wolfpack would move into a tie for second in the conference standings at 10-3 with the Blue Devils but hold the head-to-head tiebreaker heading into the ACC tournament. That not only gives them a win over a team that some analysts have considered a candidate for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but also guarantees a bye to the second round of the ACC Tournament. A loss would drop N.C. State into a three-way tie with a pack that includes Maryland (who they've beat) and North Carolina (who they've lost to twice), which would make them the fourth seed and give Duke a two-game cushion in second heading down the stretch. Neither finishing in second nor getting a bye in the ACC Tournament would be impossible if they lose at Duke, but with undefeated Notre Dame looming on the schedule for both Duke and North Carolina a win would help them keep pace.

Tl;dr: a win would really help N.C. State tonight, whether you're looking at it from a program, conference standings, ACC Tournament or NCAA Tournament perspective.

The key players for tonight's game should be pretty clear. For Duke, it's the usual story with seniors Haley Peters and Tricia Liston providing veteran leadership while sophomore Alexis Jones tries to fill the hole left by star Chelsea Gray and junior Elizabeth Williams anchors the middle. When they're clicking on all cylinders and Jones is playing anywhere near the way she played on Monday against Maryland, there's not much anyone can do against them - UNC needed a combined 54 from dynamic freshman duo DeShields and Allisha Gray to get the job done.

For N.C. State, center Markeisha Gatling gives them the nation's most efficient post presence who will create something of a marquee post matchup with Williams, who's the two-time defending ACC Defensive Player of the Year. But another player who gets far less attention nationally despite being a key to the team's success is 6-foot-2 senior forward Kody Burke.

There are a few forwards - even just in the ACC - who are known for their inside-outside versatility, but what makes Burke especially valuable is her passing ability in high-low situations with Gatling. What can easily go overlooked is how well Burke passes the ball - she has an assist rate of 13.1%, according to WBB State - while keeping her turnovers to a minimum; Burke is very good passer for size, whether it be from all over the court, which makes it easier to set up scoring opportunities for Gatling in the low post where she's most effective.

Complementing that passing ability is Burke's shooting stroke as a 30.5% career 3-point shooter and 30.9% on a career-high 81 attempts this season. Although she has been cold in recent games, that shooting range gives an otherwise average 3-point shooting team a strategic advantage in stretching defenses to open up space for Gatling. But it's that plus Burke's rebounding ability - she averages three offensive rebounds per game in conference play, which is only three less than Florida State power forward Natasha Howard, who spends the majority of her time right around the basket - that makes Burke so dangerous: they don't lose anything in having her on the court to create space for Gatling.

Reinforcing Burke's value to N.C. State is that she leads a Top-25 team in minutes, which is no small accomplishment: that versatility in big minutes was something that sbas2 of SB Nation's N.C. State site Backing the Pack noted earlier this season after a win over Wake Forest:

That she was matched up against Alyssa Thomas in the Maryland game and Dearica Hamby, the conference’s leading scorer, in this game, has to be taken into consideration. However, one has to wonder if Kody is exhausted after examining the number of minutes she has played in conference play…Coach Moore is basically using a 6 or 7 player rotation and with no substitute able to provide solid back-up minutes for Burke, Burke is playing a high number of minutes. The number of minutes played become especially high when Gatling gets into early foul trouble.

Burke can rebound, shoot, and has the size/strength to step in for Gatling in the low post at 6-foot-2. With all that Burke does for a highly-ranked team, analyst Debbie Antonelli mentioned her as a potential WNBA prospect in a recent game because she's someone that every coach would love to have on their team. It's hard to disagree with that assessment: she's not the typical role player who comes in and does the little things without making an impact on the boxscore, which makes it considerably easier to project how she might fit.

Even if it's just for a team looking for a "stretch four" - a power forward who can spread out the defense by hitting threes - Burke has exactly the profile of a player who enters training camp with little fanfare and makes a larger impression among the elite than people expected.

For more on the draft, check out our 2014 WNBA Draft prospect watch storystream.