Giants, rivals to clash again in 1-2 showdown
I'm pretty sure the only way Thursday could get any better is if there were two amazing, supernatural and inexplicable breaking news announcements: Cookies are extremely good for you ("Eat At Least 10 a Day!") and Molly Ivins will be filing a once-a-week column from heaven ("So I bumped into Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks after the Patsy Cline concert ")
Short of that, I'm willing to settle for just watching No. 1 Duke versus No. 2 North Carolina at sold-out Carmichael Auditorium (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
There are a lot of numbers to toss out for this blockbuster. We already mentioned 1 and 2, their rankings in both polls. Then there's 24-0. That's both teams' record as the last two undefeateds in Division I women's basketball.
There's 5-0, which is North Carolina's winning streak against Duke coming into this game. And 12-0, which was Duke's winning streak against Carolina before that.
How about 70th? That's what this game is in the series between the two rival schools that everyone knows are about eight miles apart.
"One" is the number of national championships between them in women's hoops. Of course, that belongs to Carolina, which made its second Final Four last season but lost in the semifinals to Maryland. The Terps then thwarted Duke in the Blue Devils' second NCAA title game and fourth trip to the Final Four.
When the schedules came out before this season, it was reasonable to assume these two -- powerhouses that they are -- wouldn't meet in February with perfect records. It meant -- among other things -- that both would have to get past Maryland and Tennessee, plus Carolina would need to top UConn.
Yet all that happened, and here we are on "Rivalry Week" with all eyes on a matchup that is heated and emotional and just plain crazy fun in every sport the schools play.
There are those rivalries of great mutual respect, of deep feelings of camaraderie, of a shared legacy of greatness you know, the Martina Navratilova-Chris Evert kind.
Then there are those rivalries in which the contestants might say exactly what they feel or they might not, but regardless nobody's fooling anybody. They just want to beat the living crap out of each other.
Colorado native Abby Waner, now a sophomore starter for Duke, said as a rookie that she was a bit "oblivious" about what it would be like to face Carolina. Then came the game and
"I was stunned at the atmosphere and the pure hatred between the schools," Waner said. "This year I'm starting to feel it a little bit more."
Duke has an aspiring doctor at center, with 6-foot-7 Alison Bales. And when the Blue Devils are playing the way they like, they resemble a surgeon: all precision, accuracy and timing. Consider the 19-0 run at the beginning of their victory at Tennessee in which they did everything but go into the stands and re-paint Bruce Pearl blue.
Such beautiful basketball as Duke can produce at times can last for much, if not all, of a game. Even though that wasn't the case against Tennessee, the edge the Blue Devils gained while they were nearly perfect was enough to sustain them for that victory.
And for lesser foes than Tennessee Duke can make some of them feel as if they're lucky to not lose 100-0.
But North Carolina can do the same thing to teams. Whereas foes probably think they are being dissected alive by the Blue Devils, they know the Tar Heels are running them right straight off the cliff.
Sometimes it seems like the Tar Heels have eight players on the court or maybe eight in the paint alone. With Erlana Larkins, Camille Little, LaToya Pringle and Rashanda McCants going for rebounds, it is about the same as facing 16 arms grabbing for the ball.
Bales knows that only too well, but Duke youngsters Carrem Gay, Bridgette Mitchell, Joy Cheek and Brittany Mitch haven't yet experienced the sheer hell of trying to box out the Tar Heels. Gay is the sophomore in that group, but she didn't play in either of last season's Duke-Carolina matchups. The other three are freshmen.
The Tar Heels this season actually have been the big-number offensive machine more than the Blue Devils. North Carolina averages 89.3 points per game, Duke 78.3. Both teams do a lot of smothering on defense, with Duke allowing an average of 50.1 points and Carolina 52.2.
Chalk-outlined Clemson could offer a victim's case study for both, having lost 100-65 to Carolina and 105-53 to Duke. That latter game was Monday, and was Duke's second 100-point output of the season. Carolina has four of those.
You can give the edge on the interior, both in strength and overall experience, to Carolina. Little is a senior, Larkins and Pringle juniors and McCants a sophomore. Larkins is one of the strongest players in women's hoops, and teams feel the effects of playing her for days afterward.
On the perimeter, though, the nod goes to Duke. Waner has put on some ridiculous shooting clinics this season, and junior Wanisha Smith would be the best guard on plenty of other teams. She was the Blue Devils' leading scorer in their loss at Carolina last season, with 16 points. Smith is currently second in assists for Duke with 93.
Which brings us to the show-within-a-show: the point-guard battle between Duke's Lindsey Harding and Carolina's Ivory Latta. Seriously, I think we'd all be absolutely glued to this if it were only those two playing one-on-one for 40 minutes.
With Latta, virtually everyone who watches women's hoops has an opinion of whether she's passionate/exciting/irrepressible or annoying/really annoying/incredibly annoying. Few would argue, though, that she isn't just being herself. In a world of phonies, give the kid that.
Harding is very passionate, too, though, and don't be surprised to see a lot of that emotion come out against Carolina.
Both are seniors, both quick, both game-changers, both team leaders. Latta is averaging 16.3 points, Harding 14.1. Latta has 112 assists to 94 turnovers and Harding 98 to 49.
That, of course, reflects their coaches' philosophies: North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell says she doesn't really care about turnovers (as the Tar Heels' 468 this season attest) and Duke's Gail Goestenkors is more in line with most of the rest of the coaches on the planet (Duke has 382 turnovers.)
But both styles work very well for both programs. Lucky for us. Carolina and Duke are giants colliding again, and everybody gets to watch the fireworks.Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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