Commentary

Duke is top team in Triangle right now

Originally Published: December 7, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

RALEIGH/DURHAM/CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- All the Triangle teams won Sunday, and each victory told us different things about the trio of ACC rivals based in this area of North Carolina.

A tour of the schools started in the afternoon at NC State's Reynolds Coliseum and finally ended -- after three delays in the game because of a faulty clock -- in the evening at North Carolina's Smith Center. In between was a visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke guard Jasmine Thomas stole the show for the second game in a row.

[+] EnlargeKellie Harper
AP Photo/The News Observer/Jason ArthursKellie Harper has guided the NC State Wolfpack to a 6-3 start in her first season.

The Wolfpack (6-3) defeated TCU 76-62; the No. 12 Blue Devils beat Southern California 78-72; and the fourth-ranked Tar Heels (6-1) topped St. John's 83-73.

With two wins this week -- the other over No. 3 Ohio State on Thursday -- Duke (7-1) is sure to move up in the rankings going into its break for final exams. That will be followed by an anticipated matchup with fellow egghead school Stanford on Dec. 15.

But it took a late technical foul on first-year USC coach Michael Cooper and the offensive brilliance from Thomas down the stretch to help secure this victory for Duke. The Trojans led by eight points at halftime and were up for a significant part of the second half.

What did we learn about Duke this past week? Thomas appears set to have a breakout junior season as a player who takes over games. She did it against both Ohio State (career-high 29 points) and USC (28 points).

But when Thomas isn't putting points on the board, Duke is still figuring out where the scoring can consistently come from. Freshman post Allison Vernerey is another player who looked good against both the Buckeyes and the Trojans; she had 13 points and eight rebounds against Ohio State and 10 and 12 against USC.

"She seems to get more aggressive on a daily basis," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "In critical situations, she demands the basketball."

Thomas and Vernerey were named ACC player and rookie of the week, respectively, on Monday. Junior wing Karima Christmas is another key difference-maker for Duke. She combined for 22 points and nine rebounds in the two games and, like Vernerey, came off the bench.

Joy Cheek (12 points), whose senior leadership will be essential for Duke, also scored in double figures Sunday.

"She hit some huge shots for us and kept talking out there, which is very important," McCallie said. "And her body language -- just the way she communicates confidence like she does."

Meanwhile, at NC State, freshman guard Marissa Kastanek's 22 points led Kellie Harper's squad. It was a win that definitely had the new Wolfpack mentor smiling afterward. Harper was not at all happy with a 53-48 loss at home Thursday to Wisconsin. The Wolfpack got outrebounded by 10 in that game and shot just 32.7 percent from the field.

The good thing was having another game at home against a quality opponent just three days later. These are critical teaching/learning days at State, and Harper said she saw her players improving Sunday on the very things she and her staff had emphasized about Thursday's loss.

"Against TCU, our execution was better than it's ever been," Harper said. "The Wisconsin game gave us some lessons, and our players are able to compare and contrast two very different games and outcomes. Even though you never want to lose, sometimes those examples are the best teaching tools.

"The players are really trying -- they want to do it right; they are pleasers. They're still learning exactly what we want. I'm teaching basketball concepts; that's a little harder, actually, than structured plays. After our TCU game, I felt they made a huge stride in that area. They feel good about what we've asked them to do."

Meanwhile at Carolina, expect some ups and downs despite all the talent. On Thursday, the Tar Heels lost 72-66 at Michigan State. On Sunday, they didn't put away St. John's until late in the game, although the delays because of the malfunctioning clock sort of took the vitality out of both teams.

The absence of All-America candidate Jessica Breland, who is recovering from Hodgkin's lymphoma, means the Tar Heels need much more from their less-experienced posts. Which are all of their posts, even the upper-class players.

Senior Trinity Bursey, sophomore Laura Broomfield and freshman Waltiea Rolle started on the interior Sunday, with junior Italee Lucas -- who led the Tar Heels with 17 points -- and sophomore She'la White at guard.

Junior guard Cetera DeGraffenreid didn't start but did get 16 points and 10 assists. Also coming off the bench were sophomore post Chay Shegog (12 points, 10 rebounds) and freshman guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (13 points, 10 rebounds). But not much should be read into the Tar Heels' starting lineup right now.

"We're young, and we're trying to develop a sense of urgency out there," coach Sylvia Hatchell said of a team with five freshmen and four sophomores. "I played a lot of people, and we have had a different starting lineup almost every game. We'll probably continue this way until ACC time. I'll give them all chances.

"We're getting better every practice. We're going to miss Jessica, but Cetera and Italee have got to lead."

Bottom line? Duke looks to be the top team among the Triangle squads right now. But, of course, Carolina -- which was picked to win the ACC -- will be dangerous when a lineup gets established and younger players really start clicking. And NC State has seen some sparks already under Harper that make the future look intriguing for the Wolfpack.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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