GREENSBORO, N.C. - Duke needed four clutch free throws at the end of their matchup with North Carolina while Notre Dame rolled N.C. State to advance to the finals of the 2014 ACC Women's Basketball Tournament.
Undefeated Notre Dame went unscathed through the ACC regular season, including two wins over Duke, and will be a top seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
The Fighting Irish needed little time to dispatch N.C. State in the first semifinal, eventually blowing out the Wolfpack 83-48. The Wolfpack were without All-ACC honoree Markeisha Gatling, who left Friday's quarterfinal with a knee injury. That left Kody Burke and the rest of her teammates to find a way to stay with the Irish on very short notice. The Irish smelled blood and attacked right away, building a 22-6 lead in the first 10:20, and Notre Dame never looked back.
Jewell Loyd (16 points) and Kayla McBride (10 points) had a permanent seat on the Irish bench before the 14-minute mark of the second half, with the rest of the starters soon to depart, as well. Notre Dame out-rebounded the outmanned Wolfpack 47-30, scoring 21 second chance points. The Irish were credited with 10 steals, four alone for Kayla McBride.
"It's the best we've ever had," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of her bench. "I think we have great depth with Michaela Mabrey. She's having a great year. I thought she was the best sixth man in the country this year. It's great to rest your starters and be confident in your bench."
N.C. State was led by Miah Spencer's 11 points, but were subdued from the outset by the Notre Dame defense. The talented Burke managed just four points on eight attempts. Each attempt at an entry pass to the post was an adventure, as the Irish were determined to deny the Wolfpack's inside game. The Pack fared no better from the perimeter, making just four of 20 three-point attempts.
"It was tough, you know, even to run some of our stuff," Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. "We had people out of position and different things. So it was a rough day. Again, that's life. We learned a lot today, I'm sure."
The night's second semifinal between Duke and North Carolina was the main attraction for most of the blue-clad throng in the arena, and was less a game than it was a defensive clinic. Duke shot 43.1 percent from the floor while holding the Tar Heels to 33.8 percent, but it took a late rally by the Devils to finally beat the Heels 66-61.
"North Carolina is a very, very good team," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "We didn't really do much to stop their primary go-to's. But we worked hard to, we tried to. And we tried to be aware and alert and make things difficult, if we could."
Tricia Lison led the Blue Devils with 17 points, including three three-pointers. Elizabeth Williams chipped in with 12 points and nine rebounds before fouling out with 34 seconds remaining. Enter Duke freshman Oderah Chidom, who had not been a factor before checking in for the final seconds.
"Well, O is a funny character, she really doesn't get phased by a lot," Duke forward Haley Peters said of Chidom. "She's confident in herself and she just went up there and hit four free throws in a row and really won the game at the end of the game."
The Tar Heels were once again led by freshman sensation Diamond DeShields, who scored 25 points and came just millimeters from adding three more, as her shot with 11 seconds remaining popped out and into Chidom's waiting arms. Fellow freshmen Allisha Gray (14 points, 7 rebounds) and Stephanie Mavunga (13 points, 9 rebounds) also were in double figures for the Tar Heels in a losing effort. North Carolina's defense forced 17 Duke turnovers but the Heels didn't take advantage, scoring only 14 points off the miscues. However, DeShields and Associate Head Coach Andrew Calder placed the blame on rebounding.
"I thought overall in the game we gave good effort," Calder said. "I do not like the fact that they out-rebounded us, and I thought that was the difference in the game."
DeShields concurred, after being asked if she saw a different Duke team than the one she'd played against in the previous two meetings.
"No, I didn't," she said. "It was a different North Carolina team as far as rebounding went. We didn't crash the boards like we should have."
Duke's victory sets up a third showdown between the Irish and Blue Devils. The Irish took the first two meetings, a 88-67 win in Durham and a 81-70 decision in South Bend. Perhaps the best assessment of how Duke might fare in their third meeting with the Irish was made by Calder, when asked for a championship prediction:
"What Notre Dame brings to the league is what Connecticut did for Notre Dame. Connecticut taught Notre Dame you've got to execute. You've got to be able to score. And this is a league that's been more defensive dominated, athletic and defensive dominated. And Notre Dame brings to the game precision, excellent precision on the offensive end, and good position defense."
For plenty more recaps and photos of the conference's tournament, check out our 2014 ACC women's basketball tournament storystream.