by Jeff Laughlin
The fans, raucously deriding the referees’ perceived errors, wanted blood. While the “real game” had just started in Durham, the Duke-UNC Women’s ACC semifinal in Greensboro had all the drama the men’s game lacked: clutch free throws, rough play, a “taunting” technical that shifted momentum and a last-second chance for the game.
Unfortunately, all the emotion the fans and the players brought to this match went for naught. The real test came on Sunday, and it resulted in a guaranteed failure. Duke’s clutch performance merely provided meat for the slaughter.
Notre Dame, the second-ranked team in the nation, has lost just two games in the past two seasons — one to perennial powerhouse UConn and one to Brittany Griner’s near-impenetrable Baylor squad. Since then they joined the ACC, only to crush their opponents, not unlike Florida State’s football team when they joined in 1992. And they had a near-miss championship run in last year’s NCAA tournament only to return most of the team, like Maryland’s men’s team in 2001.
That’s where the ACC comparisons end. There have been no teams this dominant in decades of ACC tournaments. Notre Dame went undefeated in conference play, thrashed their first two tournament opponents with impunity and set up an advertising nightmare: a forgone conclusion game during primetime.
None of this stopped the second semifinal from being such a delightful spectacle, though. UNC’s Diamond DeShields put on a show for the Chapel Hill faithful despite the loss. Her 10-25, 25 point performance held a small lead until her emotions bubbled over.
That small lead shrunk when she stared down an opponent after sinking a three. And it wasn’t the first time. Despite her obvious talents and scoring, UNC certainly did not need to stir its opponent while giving away free points late in the game.
Then Duke made their run, sealing it at the line before DeShields missed a desperation three with less than 10 seconds left.
Before all that, though, Notre Dame took care of business. NC State, built on an unlikely season, would have been a wonderful Cinderella story. New coach Wes Moore took a team with a lot of potential and unleashed that potential on the league. Then, they won their first ACC Tournament game in grand fashion against Syracuse.
During the win, however, they lost one of their best players, Markeisha Gatling, to a knee injury. From there, Notre Dame had all the weakness they needed.
Notre Dame’s 2-3 zone intensifies the closer opponents get to the basket. Gatling, NC State’s center, would have at least made the lower half of that zone work for rebounds and could have kept the guards honest to the middle. As it was, Notre Dame’s defense destroyed the non-presence of NC State’s forwards.
The Irish offense dominated even more. Notre Dame leads the NCAA in shooting percentage both in the paint and from behind the arc. That speaks to how thoroughly they dominated the ACC all year, but it also speaks to how good these ladies really were.
When Duke stepped in to play the No. 2 team in the nation, the crowd knew what to expect. Duke would pound the ball down low with Elizabeth Williams, a first-team all ACC Tournament selection and hope to draw the 2-3 zone in. With that, they would just have to make open shots and they stood a chance. The defense would have to thwart a Notre Dame team that scored 83 points in both of its blowout tourney wins thus far.
Duke started well. They paced quickly and scored on five of their first seven possessions, while Notre Dame sputtered a bit out of the gate. Duke’s tensile 8-6 lead already marked the biggest challenge Notre Dame had to overcome in the tournament.
As the half wore on, Notre Dame’s shooting improved and Duke maintained a delicate balance between going down by multiple possessions and drawing even. Duke rebounded well, especially offensively, and Notre Dame began a little infighting as to who drew the responsibility of stopping the monstrous Williams.
The Notre Dame fans looked a little bewildered at the halftime score, a tie at 28-28, since their team had not been behind at any critical juncture in the tournament. The Duke team had to think it had a real shot at the title until the second half started.
By the 16-minute mark, it was clear that Notre Dame had no intention of finishing the ACC season with a blemish on its record. They began to pull away with a mixture of midrange jumpers — Senior Kayla McBride leading the way — and fast breaks. Their crisp execution, their depth and their untamed athleticism proved too much for Duke.
With 14:30 left in the game, Notre Dame delivered a deathblow, though Duke never quit competing. Two straight fast breaks, one of which was a spectacular alley-oop lay-in, pushed the lead to double-digits. Notre Dame likely could have coasted to an undefeated season, but Coach Muffet McGraw drew up a full-court press to harass the Blue Devils into multiple turnovers.
That decision summed up the season for Notre Dame. With the game in hand, they pressed to be certain victors. The foul-heavy last few minutes of the championship played out like a game of Russian roulette with no bullets. Neither team looked exceedingly impressive and both looked wiped out.
While Duke will likely draw a high seed for the upcoming NCAAs, there could be only one champion in the ACC.
Unfortunately for the fans, Notre Dame’s talent made the whole tournament a foregone conclusion.