ACC’s best, Duke Women cut the nets

Jasmine Thomas and Duke cut the nets

GREENSBORO, N.C. – The final buzzer sounded, and Duke’s Joy Cheek flung the ball toward the ceiling before locking fellow seniors Keturah Jackson and Bridgette Mitchell in a long, lasting hug.

Whoop it up, ladies. You’ve finally got an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title.

No. 9 Duke captured its first ACC championship since 2004 by beating North Carolina State 70-60 on Sunday behind 18 points from tournament MVP Jasmine Thomas.

Karima Christmas added 13 points for the Blue Devils (27-5), who forced 23 turnovers and outrebounded the Wolfpack 46-32 in claiming their sixth ACC title and first since winning five in a row from 2000-04.

“To have the opportunity to be here again, after having lost those three years, it was just now or never,” Mitchell said.

For these Blue Devils’ seniors, their final game in Greensboro came with some fitting symmetry. They were freshmen in 2007 when Duke was undefeated, ranked No. 1 nationally and rolling toward an inevitable title when they were upset in the semifinals by an N.C. State team inspired by coach Kay Yow’s feel-good midseason return.

Duke made it to the championship in each of the three years that followed under coach Joanne P. McCallie, but the Blue Devils were stopped by powerful No. 1 seeds in both 2008 and ’09. This time, the No. 1 seed belonged to them – and they took full advantage.

“We had this goal in mind, because three of us have seen us go to the ACC tournament championship and come up short,” Cheek said. “The balloons and the streamers, we had to watch them fall down for someone else. And so we didn’t want to have to see that happen again. It was an embarrassing feeling, and we just didn’t want to feel like that again.”

Nikitta Gartrell had 19 points to lead the sixth-seeded Wolfpack (20-13). They were denied in their bid to become the first team to win four games in four days here and were out for their third upset of a ranked team in eight days.

“I’m extremely proud of our team for so many reasons,” first-year coach Kellie Harper said. “But in that locker room … I was proud of them for wanting more. They’re hurt that they didn’t win this game, and I am so proud of that.”

Cheek had 11 points while Thomas, who averaged 16 points in the tournament, added six rebounds and six assists. Duke took the lead for good by reeling off 14 consecutive points during a 23-7 run midway through the first half, went up by 18 with about 8½ minutes remaining and refused to allow N.C. State to complete a second comeback in two days.

Brittany Strachan hit two 3-pointers in a 34-second span to pull the Wolfpack within 65-56 with just under 3 minutes left, but they couldn’t get any closer.

The Blue Devils’ reward: A banner to hang at Cameron Indoor Stadium and roughly two weeks off before they make 16th straight NCAA tournament appearance – on their home court, no less.

“It’s kind of like the appetizer before the big meal, and it’s a very, very good appetizer,” said McCallie, the first coach in Division I history to win conference tournaments in four different leagues.

Duke won the first meeting 70-39 on Feb. 11, and while it controlled the rematch throughout, this one was nowhere near that lopsided: The Blue Devils’ largest lead came when Cheek’s jumper made it 60-42 with 8:18 left.

Bonae Holston added 14 points for the Wolfpack, who reached the title game for the 14th time, but first since the 2007 team’s Yow-inspired run.

“Winning is a big part of how we’ve been acting lately,” Gartrell said. “Our confidence and everything has been sky high. We can’t drop our heads and let our confidence go away because we have NCAAs to worry about now.”

Three years after that unlikely ride, and a year after her death, and the late coach still was never far from anybody’s mind. Hanging from the rafters behind one basket was a banner bearing her name in pink, the color of breast-cancer awareness, with an inverted ribbon replacing the “Y” in her last name. Harper, her replacement, was trying to become the first first-year coach to win the women’s tournament.

She helped N.C. State rally from 10 points down to beat Boston College in the semifinals. Early on in this one, Duke’s full-court pressure put the Wolfpack in that unwelcome position again.

That aggressive defense wound up proving too much for N.C. State, especially during the first-half run that put the Blue Devils on their way to the title. They forced 15 turnovers in the opening half – 10 during that spurt, and many of those created by the press that continually frustrated the Wolfpack.