NC teams come up short in the quarterfinals. Except Duke

Photo: UNC’s Deja Kelly had trouble with Duke defenders on Friday night. [photo by Todd Turner]

Wake Forest (12) – 48
Louisville (4) – 74

NC State (8) – 60
Notre Dame (1) – 66

Duke (2) – 44
UNC (7) – 40

Virginia Tech (3) – 68
Miami (6) – 42

Day 3 of the ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament began as a fine, fine moment for the Old North State. Wake Forest scored an unbelievable upset yesterday, overcoming an 18-point halftime deficit to overwhelming favorite Florida State University on the strength of a 26-0 run in the second half. Incredible. Three-peat defending champions NC State were due against 1-seed Notre Dame for the second game. And then there would be a classic Duke-UNC matchup before Miami went up against 3-seed Virginia Tech, each team with a legitimate claim to the title. No NC connection there, but still.

And then they started to fall.

For real: On paper, Wake Forest wasn’t supposed to beat Louisviile. But I liked their chances! During the regular season, Louisville showed a weak spot against the 3-point shot; that, I figured, would be the Deacons’ only hope, much of which rested on the shoulders of junior guard Jewel Spear, who led the team in that category all season long.

But Louisville had a 3-point sniper of their own: junior guard Hailey Van Lith.

Van Lith came out ferociously, shotting 4-4 from 3-point range in the first quarter, notching 17 of the Cardinals’ 20 points in that time. By the end she had put up 26 points, 15 of them outside the paint. Spear, meanwhile, found her offense thwarted by a sticky Louisville defense all day; their full-court press created shot-clock violations, traveling violations and a general frustration among the Wake Forest crew. Spear still managed 15 points, but it wasn’t enough.

Final score: 74-48. But what a ride! I will be a fan of this Wake Forest team for life. Let’s see if the men can play with as much heart next week.

NC State, on the other hand, had a fair shot at toppling 1-seed Notre Dame. They’re a tournament team, usually saving a little something for the postseason.

The Fighting Irish had the best record in the regular season, losing only three conference games. But! Those losses came to Duke, UNC and… wait for it… NC State! Could it be that NC had ND’s number?

Even more but! In that win, NC State junior guard Diamond Johnson showed up big, scoring 20 points and snagging 8 rebounds, but Johnson’s been sidelined all tournament with an ankle injury, leaving the rest of her team to deal with the Fighting Irish.

Notre Dame’s star player, sophomore guard Sonia Citron, suffered under no such malady. She dropped 9 points in the first quarter alone on her way to a game-high 28 points — 12 of them in the fourth quarter — and 8 rebounds.

The Wolfpack became the second NC team to get knocked out on Day 3 largely on missed shots: just 37 percent from the field, and a dismal 13 percent from 3-point range.

The final score was close — 66-60 — but the game wasn’t.

With Duke vs Carolina, at least, we knew one of them would remain into the semifinals.

Let’s talk now about Duke and Carolina, and that deep, abiding hate that exists between the two teams — be it basketball, football, baseball, field hockey, even the schools’ newspapers have a rivalry.

And there’s a real buildup to this one — 2-seed Duke lost to 7-seed UNC just a couple months ago during the regular season, and then again just a week ago. They don’t often meet in postseason play, and the Greensboro Coliseum teemed with the various shades of blue, the biggest crowd yet.

It’s the matchup everyone wanted to see. And it’s Good for the Game, by which I mean women’s college basketball. Loaded with viscera and history, no matter the outcome it would be the lead story on practically every evening news broadcast in the state.

This would be my first-ever Duke-UNC game ever on Press Row, even after all these years covering the ACC. And I don’t really have a preference. Okay fine, Carolina, but I took Duke on my bracket, splitting the difference. And though I’m agnostic, there’s something special about seeing these two color schemes in the same place at the same time.

I don’t know what the Duke and Carolina coaches said to their players before tipoff, but right away the game exhibited more fervor than any other of this tourney so far. It was a low-scoring affair, the most physical I’ve seen, with players scrabbling on the floor for loose balls and really knocking each other around. It was a great competition, but not such a great basketball game: long stretches without any scoring, so many missed shots — Carolina shot just 24 percent from the field while Duke hit 32 percent. The best players didn’t deliver. Or maybe they did, effectively shutting each other down. With only 8 points, UNC junior forward Alyssa Ustby missed her chance at breaking 1,000 career. Ten more would have done it. Only two Duke players scored in the double-digits: senior forward Elizabeth Balogun (11) and sophomore guard Reigan Richardson (11). For UNC, only junior guard Deja Kelly dropped more than 10 points.

The lead changed eight times; the score was tied seven times. And it came down literally to the last couple seconds, with Duke managing to hold a small lead for the last 2 minutes.

So with all the day’s North Carolina business handled, where is the local angle in the final game of the night, 3-seed Virginia Tech vs 6-seed Miami?

Look no further than Hokie senior center Elizabeth Kitley, a Northwest Guilford High School grad from Summerfield!

Kitley is no joke: 6-foot-6, among the tallest in the ACC. She was last year’s ACC Player of the Year, this year’s pre-season Player of the Year, is on every watchlist for the sport’s highest honors and, after she graduates, will almost certainly be drafted to the WNBA in the first round.

She’s the most dynamic big player in the tournament, bigger than 6-foot-4 Miami senior Lola Pendaje, who she held to three points, and faster than 6-foot-6 freshman forward Kyla Oldacre, most of whose 5 points came after Kitley sat down for the night. Even if she just stood in the box like a flagpole she’d screw up her opponents’ game. But she doesn’t.

Kitley shot 11 for 20 from the floor, contributing 22 points and snagging 10 rebounds, the first double-double of the tourney, and she sat out most of the fourth quarter.

There was nothing Miami could do. None of their players scored more than 6 points. The combined efforts of the Cavinder twins, 4 million TikTok followers notwithstanding, still fell short of Kitley’s numbers. This one was a rout — 68-42.

After the events of Day 3, all that’s left is the heavyweights: Louisville vs Notre Dame and the nightcap, Duke vs Virginia Tech.

How’s my bracket? Glad you asked. I called all four wins today, so I’m 9-11 so far. I’ve got Duke facing off with Notre Dame in the final on Sunday, with Duke — the last North Carolina team standing — taking it all.

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