- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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HERNDON, Va. -- Here I am in the greater Washington D.C., area, the perfect place to be for the Big ACC showdown.
Last week, that is.
Yep, this would have been just fine for Duke at Maryland on Feb. 18. However, Sunday afternoon the main event was at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., as the No. 1 Blue Devils met archrival North Carolina in the regular-season finale. And that's indeed where I was headed. I just didn't quite make it.
At least I ended up in the same time zone as the participants in this classic battle, won 67-62 by the Blue Devils to give them a 29-0 regular-season record and all but sew up the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament's Greensboro Regional. It came on senior day for Lindsey Harding and Alison Bales in front of a sold-out crowd, some of whom had camped out to get a great seat (as it turns out, one of them could have had mine).
The Kansas City to D.C. part of my trip worked out fine -- until I landed in a mini-blizzard at Washington Dulles. It's just a quick hop from there to Raleigh/Durham unless the plane never takes off. We sat on our jet supposedly bound for North Carolina and sat and sat. When they made the announcement that folks could get off and go find something to eat if they wanted to, I kind of sensed the handwriting was on the wall.
Around 2:45 p.m. ET came the dreaded announcement that the flight was cancelled. I was going to be watching Duke-North Carolina on ESPN like most everybody else.
I should count my blessings because it's the first time in 20-plus years of sports writing that I've ever been forced to miss a game due to bad weather. Which we have a fair amount of in the Midwest, except we're almost always stupid enough to drive in it.
I trudged and griped and moped my way to go find a hotel to watch the game. And while riding the shuttle bus back to the main terminal, I attempted to cheer myself up (not that it really worked) by remembering the last time I'd passed through Dulles. It was a few years ago on the way to a game in Connecticut, and on the shuttle bus I looked over and saw actress Lynda Carter.
Naturally, I had to glance over a couple of times (very discreetly) to make sure it was really Lynda Carter and not just somebody who looked a lot like her -- as if there are a lot of such people running around. Once I was absolutely positive, I still managed to just mind my own business and not be the 5 millionth person to say to her, "Hey, can you bend this bar? Hahaha!" or "Would you please do that deflecting-bullets-with-your-wrist-bands trick? Hehehe!"
So I didn't see Lynda Carter this time. But if I had made it to Durham, I know who I would have proclaimed, at least on this day, to be Wonder Woman. (Gee, you didn't see that line coming, did you?)
The player largest in stature on court was also the one who came up big time and again in the Blue Devils' victory: 6-foot-7 center Bales. She had 16 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, four blocked shots and two steals. Oh, and one foul in 38 minutes.
One would imagine the Tar Heels wanted a few more whistles on Bales. Because unless you get her in foul trouble, you're never going to get her out of your hair. She has turned into the Great Wall of Durham on defense.
"I told Ali at halftime that when I get beat [on defense], sometimes it's just because I feel like letting her get a block," joked sophomore guard Abby Waner in the postgame press conference (which I wasn't actually at, of course, but we scribes have our ingenious ways of getting this information when we're not present; it's e-mailed to us).
Waner continued, "It's a comfort level that you can pressure, and if you happen to get beat, then there is that next line of defense."
This game wasn't quite like the one Feb. 8 in Chapel Hill, but there were still some definite similarities. North Carolina's Erlana Larkins and Ivory Latta -- who combined to go 4-of-28 from the field in that 64-53 Tar Heel loss -- had more success Sunday. Larkins finished with 18 points, 19 rebounds, two assists and three blocks. Latta had a team-best 19 points, although she struggled again from 3-point range. In the two games with Duke this season, Latta is 1-of-17 from behind the arc. Against everybody else, she's 84-of-190 (44.2 percent).
The Tar Heels' lowest point total of the season was the 53 they scored in the first loss to Duke. Their second-lowest point total came in the second loss to Duke. North Carolina has averaged 57.5 points against the Blue Devils, and 88.4 in its 28 other games.
The Duke defense is very, very good in every respect. But when you have that anchor in the middle that Bales provides, it just makes all of her teammates better. When Duke went to zone Sunday, North Carolina couldn't do much at all offensively.
Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell said she was disappointed her players didn't attack the zone the way she thinks they could have. Camille Little's 3-pointer with just less than eight minutes left put North Carolina up 56-55. From there on out, Duke did to the Tar Heels' offense what the snow did to Dulles airport: shut it down.
Harding and Waner got steals. Rookie Joy Cheek, who came off the bench to help fill in for a still-hurting Carrem Gay, had 14 huge boards to supplement her eight points. And patrolling the middle was Bales, who plays big, hard and smart -- a lethal combination.
"I wasn't worried about her blocking my shot because she's done that to me many times before, and that happens," Larkins said. "But that doesn't stop you from taking it to her."
Well, no. It just doesn't always work out so well. Larkins did go 8-for-16 from the floor, and if you have to go against Bales, you might as well have that attitude. Beside, if Bales had blocked 18 shots against the Tar Heels, they would have said afterward, "Look, there was no way we were going to let her swat 19." That's just the way this rivalry is.
In the first matchup with the Heels, Bales had just seven points and was a little tentative on offense. She fixed that this time. What stayed the same in both games was her defense; she has a combined 26 rebounds and 11 blocks against North Carolina this season. And as coach Gail Goestenkors says, there's no way to fully measure how many opponents' shots Bales alters.
Goestenkors had some issues with her team Sunday. Most specifically with going 15-of-33 from the foul line, the kind of thing that could be a killer in March. Nor is she jumping up and down about being undefeated going into the ACC tournament, where her team and the Tar Heels might meet again. Duke knows it will be judged externally this season on one thing: whether it can win an NCAA title.
That's the way it is, but also kind of a shame. Because there is a great deal to appreciate about what Duke has done to this point. And no matter what happens, Bales and Harding leave Cameron with a memory of beating such a worthy adversary on a "perfect" senior day.
At least, it sure looked good on TV.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alison Bales, the player largest in stature on court, was also the one who came up big time and again as Duke wrapped up a perfect 29-0 regular season with a win over North Carolina on Sunday.