CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - No. 7 Duke is looking for ways to make up for a series of backcourt-crippling injuries. No. 14 North Carolina is still trying to solve some of its up-and-down ways.
The rivals are far from finished products as they meet Sunday to close the regular season and head to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
“I could only imagine losing three of our key players to injuries,” UNC freshman Diamond DeShields said of Duke. “We’ve got everybody healthy. Granted, we are struggling, but we have two different struggles going on.”
Indeed. The Blue Devils (25-4, 12-3 ACC) lost point guard and reigning league co-player of the year Chelsea Gray to a knee injury for the second straight year in January. Then sophomore Alexis Jones, who assumed a bigger role with Gray’s absence, was lost for the year with a torn knee ligament suffered last week against Notre Dame.
The team has also been without senior guard Chloe Wells (10 straight games) and freshman guard Rebecca Greenwell (all year) due to injuries.
When Duke beat Wake Forest on Thursday night, the Blue Devils played eight players - four played at least 31 minutes - with Tricia Liston and Richa Jackson picking up more ball-handling duties.
“I don’t know what our biggest challenge is,” senior forward Haley Peters said. “I think we just have to really enjoy this whole experience. We have a more unique end-of-the-year experience than any other team in the country will have because we’ve had such dramatic things happen to us all year.”
The Tar Heels (21-8, 9-6) are at least in one piece physically. A team led by freshmen stars DeShields and Allisha Gray along with sophomore Xylina McDaniel won the first meeting with Duke on the road then followed with a win at then-No. 10 North Carolina State later that week.
That came after a three-game losing streak.
But two games after the N.C. State win, the Tar Heels lost at home to a Virginia Tech team that was 2-11 in the league. UNC shot 27 percent in that one, with DeShields - who had gone for 30 points at Duke and a school freshman record 38 at N.C. State - and Gray combining to go 4-for-26.
Then came Thursday’s trip to unbeaten and second-ranked Notre Dame, which ended with a 100-75 loss.
Associate head coach Andrew Calder, who is leading the team while Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell is away focusing on treatment for leukemia, said he won’t “bail them out with inexperience being the reason we’re up and down.” Rather, he’s pushing his team to display the form that it showed in its best wins as the rule, not the exception.
“I will say this, they’ve worked extremely hard and we’ve pushed them,” Calder said. “And we’re very proud of how hard they have worked. And we know we’re talented. We’re hoping it gels very soon on a consistent basis.”
Calder said his team has a tendency to settle for jumpshots instead of attacking off the dribble or passing into the paint. DeShields said that’s something the Tar Heels must correct.
“I don’t really know how to feel about it because there are times where I feel like we’re there,” DeShields said of the team’s chemistry. “Like when we played Duke, I felt like we had gelled very well. At N.C. State, it felt like we gelled. Then we played Virginia Tech, it was like, ‘Where are we? Did we just take two steps back or is this just a bad day?’ … I mean, I’m not worried about it. It’s not a concern of mine. Just play basketball as best you can and things will fall in place on their own.”