Duke, UNC meet again for fitting ACC finale

Updated: February 25, 2006, 11:52 AM ET
Associated Press

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The messages piled up quickly for Sylvia Hatchell. On her cell phone. At the office. Via e-mail. Even at home.

They all were looking for tickets to Saturday's sold out game between No. 1 Duke and No. 2 North Carolina. And the coach of the Tar Heels couldn't do anything to help.

"I don't like having to say 'no' to all these people that need tickets," she said.

Still, it's a nice problem to have for Hatchell -- and the Atlantic Coast Conference, for that matter. The winner gets the top seed in the ACC tournament and most likely the No. 1 spot in the national rankings next week. And that's altogether fitting for a league that has three teams ranked among the first four.

The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have identical 25-1 records, including 12-1 in the ACC. North Carolina took the first meeting, rallying from a 16-point deficit to earn a 74-70 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium and its first No. 1 ranking. But the Tar Heels lost three games later against No. 4 Maryland (25-3, 12-2) to allow Duke to return to No. 1 after starting there in the preseason.

The Tar Heels are looking for their fifth straight win in the series, which includes all three matchups last year. Before that, Duke had won 12 straight.

And, of course, having the first 1-vs.-2 matchup between the schools can add only more spice to the intense rivalry, right?

"All of those things are important except staying No. 1," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "That's not anything we've ever talked about. But the players know what's on the line. And it is Carolina, so I really don't have to say a whole lot to get people motivated."

Goestenkors noted that the winner would have an easier road in the ACC tournament, avoiding a possible matchup with the Terrapins in the semifinals. That said, it wouldn't be much of a break considering how tough the league has been all year.

The ACC has led the Collegiate Basketball News' RPI ratings all season, and has a national-best six teams -- Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and Boston College -- in its top 25. In addition, Florida State -- rated 34th -- is fourth in the ACC heading into Sunday's finale against Boston College.

Even more impressive has been the league's national-best 131-28 nonconference record, with nine of those wins coming against ranked teams. The highlight was Duke and North Carolina earning lopsided wins against Tennessee and Connecticut, respectively, the traditionally dominant programs in women's basketball with a combined 11 NCAA championships.

"I think the ACC is really making a statement for women's basketball, not just UNC and Duke," Blue Devils senior Mistie Williams said. "Usually it's the SEC that's getting all the love because they have Tennessee and they have national championships. The ACC's creeping up here."

Consider Tennessee coach Pat Summitt impressed. The Blue Devils handed her then-No. 1 Lady Vols a 75-53 loss on Jan. 23, and the Tar Heels won 77-54 at Connecticut in December for the Huskies' worst home loss under Geno Auriemma.

"You have to believe Duke and North Carolina and Maryland are all going to be teams in the postseason that are going to be very successful," Summitt said. "They've proven themselves throughout the season."

That kind of success has certainly created a buzz here for this matchup. The game at Cameron was a sellout between the nation's last unbeaten teams in men's and women's college basketball. The second marks the first advanced sellout for the North Carolina women, requiring the first ticket distribution for students, faculty and staff at Carmichael Auditorium.

"With it being 1 and 2, I'm not going to say it's going to put a lot of pressure on both teams," North Carolina senior La'Tangela Atkinson said. "But it's going to be tough. Everyone wants to be No. 1."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press