The North Carolina-Duke rivalry is referred to as the “Battle of the Blues.” For their women’s basketball teams this season, that name certainly fits.
The rivals meet Sunday as unranked teams for the first time in 24 years.
With a roster down to six healthy scholarship players because of transfers and injuries, the Tar Heels knew this was going to be a rough season. The struggles are more of a surprise for the Blue Devils, whose 312-week run in the AP Top 25 ended this week when they lost three of four earlier this month and dropped out of the poll for the first time since 1999.
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said Friday that there are “some sort of assumptions that we’re supposed to do x, y and z, and we’re not entitled to that. We have to earn that.”
This is the first time since Jan. 15, 1992, that neither team is nationally ranked when they meet, making that series of No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchups from 2006 and ’07 feel even more distant.
Duke (14-6, 3-3) is tied for seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings after being picked in the preseason to finish fourth, while the Tar Heels (12-9, 2-4), the pick to finish seventh, are in 10th place.
“Don’t count us out, but that is what it is,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “It is a fight. And I can promise you we will fight in every game.”
Part of the problem for Duke has been roster turnover and, well, turnovers.
The Blue Devils committed 32 of them in a blowout loss at Syracuse, 22 more in a loss at Louisville and another 21 in their first home loss to North Carolina State in 20 years — and in each game, those opponents turned those takeaways into at least 27 points. Duke ranks 305th in Division I with an average of 19.1 turnovers per game.
A big reason for those struggles is simply inexperience.
The Blue Devils start freshman Kyra Lambert at point guard, a key member of a class that ESPN’s recruiting service rated as the nation’s best. But Duke also has only one active player who has been in the program for four years — Amber Henson, who took an 11-game leave of absence before returning earlier this month. Junior forward Kendall Cooper isn’t enrolled in school this semester but may return next fall, and freshman Haley Gorecki will likely miss the rest of the season with a right hip injury.
“When we’ve had freshmen before, we had juniors and seniors before who were dominant,” McCallie said. “This year we don’t have dominant juniors and seniors. … They’ve had to learn as we go, and that’s a huge challenge for them.”
For the Tar Heels, they knew all along that this wasn’t going to be an easy road.
The program, like the entire school, still lives under the shadow of a long-running NCAA investigation into academic misconduct involving a department with courses featuring significant athlete enrollments. The NCAA hit the school with five charges in May, including lack of institutional control as well as accusing an academic counselor working with women’s basketball players of providing improper assistance on research papers.
Plus, all four players from a 2013 recruiting class that ranked No. 1 nationally — Diamond DeShields (Tennessee), Allisha Gray (South Carolina), Stephanie Mavunga (Ohio State) and Jessica Washington (Kansas) — all transferred during the past two years. That left the Tar Heels with a group of seven scholarship players — and it grew even thinner when senior Xylina McDaniel suffered a season-ending knee injury announced earlier this week.
But relief is coming: Hatchell said nine new players — including Vanderbilt transfer Paris Kea, who’s sitting out this year — will be on the team next season.
“We just have to pick it up more, and we just have to get the mindset of, no matter what, we’re going to play hard and we’re going to keep fighting to the end,” guard Jamie Cherry said.
AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill contributed to this report.
AP college basketball site: http://collegebasketball.ap.org