The beauty of college basketball tournament games is that a less-talented team can win by compensating with greater drive and intensity. The Duke women's basketball discovered this cold reality on Saturday afternoon in the form of a 70-65 loss to NC State in the ACC Tournament semifinals. In terms of sheer talent, the Wolfpack were overmatched. However, they are playing with an incredible fire, and that passion shone through against the Blue Devils. Despite facing a 31-20 deficit in the first half, State refused to go away. In a hotly-contested and entertaining second half of basketball, Kay Yow's team pulled away by hitting a number of tough shots (and free throws) down the stretch and by holding Duke without a field goal after Carrem Gay's jumper with 4:25 remaining. Ashley Key was a thorn in Duke's side all afternoon with 21 points, including 6 in the final 3+ minutes.There were a number of things to be disappointed about on Duke's end. For the first time this year, the Devils did not answer a team's late charge. In the tight games against Carolina, Duke took the Heels' best shot and responded with one of their own. Against the Wolfpack, the Devils did not, scoring only 2 points (no field goals) in the last 4+ minutes. The offensive execution simply was not there down the stretch, as exemplified by a miscommunication between Lindsey Harding and Joy Cheek that led to a crucial turnover with 1:32 remaining. Harding again did not play well, shooting only 3-13, and Duke desperately needs her to step up and hit big shots down the stretch. Abby Waner, who gets the game ball for her hot shooting, had a chance to tie it with about ten seconds remaining, but she really rushed a long three and ended up taking a nearly impossible look that hit nothing.
Despite Duke's shortcomings, the credit must simply go to an inspired NC State squad. That team has gone through so much this year with Coach Yow's struggle with breast cancer, and they have channeled that emotion into a stretch of truly great play. It is one of the best, if not the best, story in women's college basketball this year. So where does Duke go from here? Well, they go back to Durham, where you can bet Coach G will put them through their paces over the next week.
We personally did not ascribe to the sentiment that it might help to lose a game in the ACC Tournament, thus taking the pressure of a perfect season away in time for the NCAA Tournament. This team, with its senior leadership, seemed unlikely to rest on its laurels or too acutely to feel the pressure of an undefeated season.
However, any motivation that Duke needed for the NCAA Tournament has now been provided. Nobody in the Duke camp is feeling sorry for themselves right now, and expect the Devils to fix a few leaks and come out with something to prove for the real March Madness.