GREENSBORO, N.C. -- If the opening game of the ACC tournament semifinals was a tranquilizer, then the nightcap was a jolt of espresso. Game one between top-seeded Notre Dame and NC State was a blowout from the word go, with the only mystery left in the game being if the Wolfpack could score as many points in the whole game as Notre Dame did in the first half alone. The second game was another Duke-UNC classic in a game fraught with tension, emotions bubbling over and a pulse-pounding final five minutes of play that thrilled the 8000 fans in attendance.
Semifinal 1 (Game 12): (1) Notre Dame 83, (4) North Carolina State 48
Recap: This one was over when State center Markeisha Gatling went down with a bruised knee in State's comeback win over Syracuse in the ACC quarterfinals. The 6-5 post was the one player who presented a matchup problem for the Irish due to her ability to anchor NC State's perimeter-oriented offense with a post player who demanded a double team. With her out of the picture, the Irish were able to focus on NC State's other star, forward Kody Burke. The Irish held her to just 1-8 shooting and four points. Meanwhile, Notre Dame blew out to a 12-0 lead and then had an 11-2 run that gave the Irish a nineteen point lead just thirteen minutes into the game. The Irish rotated in their bench players five minutes into the game and got what was an extended scrimmage for their Big Three of Natalie Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd. Those three combined to play just 57 minutes out of a possible 200 because Notre Dame's bench scored 41 points. Once the Irish built up their lead, there was no coming back.
Player of the Game: Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame. she had 16 points and 6 rebounds, starting off the game aggressively attacking the hoop and getting to the line eight times. She is the pacesetter for this club, and when she establishes herself early, Notre Dame is almost impossible to beat.
Key Stat: 13-0 and 10-0. The former represents Notre Dame's edge in points off turnovers in the first half, while the latter represents second chance points. These stats are just one indicator of how thoroughly the Irish dominated the Pack.
Semifinal 2 (Game 13): (2) Duke 66, (6) North Carolina 61
Recap: The Heels swept Duke this season, thanks to a lethal transition offense, timely three point shooting and physical play by its post players. The Devils, minus their starting backcourt plus their key backcourt reserve, demonstrated that this new version of their team is still one to reckon with. They took away UNC's fast break, thanks simply to taking care of the ball and making sure each player met it when they passed. The Devils were much smarter in guarding three point shooters, shutting down Heel guard Allisha Gray for most of the second half and took out Heel forward Xylina McDaniel. They gave her little room to operate in the post and kept a spy on her for when she drifted out to the perimeter. The Devils had great balance in its starting lineup, as each player scored between seven and 17 points.
The teams battled to a 31-all tie at the half as Duke blew out to an early lead but found that the Heels weren't going to stay down long. Duke regained the lead late in the first half, but the Heels took advantage of Duke errors in making it 31-all. UNC struck first in the second half, hitting back-to-back threes that pushed Duke to the brink. However, every time it seemed like the Heels might be ready to pull away a bit, Duke would score on a tough drive or hit a big jump shot. A technical foul for taunting by DeShields sent the game into overdrive, as both teams buckled down in terms of focus and intensity. With 1:18 to go, Duke's Elizabeth Willliams tied the game at 60 and then blocked a shot by UNC's Stephanie Mavunga. Ka'lia Johnson got the board and was fouled, hitting both. UNC's N'Dea Bryant was fouled and hit just one. Deshields missed a three that would have tied the game with eleven seconds left, and Duke frosh Oderah Chidom was 4-4 from the foul stripe in the last few seconds of the game. That touched off a celebration for Duke as they made it to the finals yet again and proved that a slower and bigger of their team can still beat elite opponents. The ultimate test of that proposition will occur in the ACC finals, as the Devils will battle the precision basketball machine that is Notre Dame.
Player of the Game: Ka'lia Johnson, Duke. She had nine points, eight rebounds and four assists. Beyond the raw numbers, the context for those stats is crucial. Johnson hit a huge three to tie the game at 55. She put Duke ahead 62-60 with two free throws with 44 seconds left in the game, which is remarkable considering she's a 68-percent foul shooter. She played tough defense on Diamond DeShields, making her earn her 25 points by taking 25 shots. Johnson has become the glue player that Duke desperately needed to make this revamped lineup work.
Key Stat: 28-14. That was Duke's edge in points in the paint, as Duke in general did a better job of rebounding than in their first two meetings with the Heels. Establishing the post is always job one for a Joanne McCallie club, and Duke absorbed a flurry of Tar Heel threes, seventeen of their own turnovers and spotty shooting because they owned the post and the lane. When it came down to it at the end of the game, establishing that dominance eventually helped them win.
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