GREENSBORO, North Carolina — Staring down a three-game sweep at the hands of its fiercest rival, No. 10 Duke was tough enough to fight its way through to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game.
Tricia Liston scored 17 points and Ka'lia Johnson hit the go-ahead free throws with 44.1 seconds left to help the Blue Devils rally late to beat No. 13 North Carolina 66-61 in Saturday's semifinals.
Johnson's two free throws broke a 60-all tie for the second-seeded Blue Devils (27-5), who played with veteran poise late to hold off freshman star Diamond DeShields and the sixth-seeded Tar Heels (24-9).
Now, despite being down four point guards from the start of the season — including former league player of the year Chelsea Gray — the Blue Devils are within a win of their ninth ACC title.
"We've gone through a lot as a team and it hasn't really, I don't think, worn us down emotionally," senior Haley Peters said. "It's just made us really become a closer team and really, we just want to be as good as we can be. ... We've been energized by it, I think."
Duke, which used just eight players, faces No. 2 Notre Dame in Sunday's final. The unbeaten Fighting Irish beat the Blue Devils by a combined 32 points in the regular-season meetings.
"It's a great opportunity for us, a really great opportunity for us because they're very, very good," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "They're definitely picked to beat us, obviously. They're ahead of us, they have been all year. And that's just the way it is."
At the end, it was lesser-known players like Johnson and Oderah Chidom stepping up to the foul line to cap Duke's comeback and put away the Tar Heels. Johnson was shooting 67.6 percent from the line and Chidom 55.1, but they made six straight free throws in the final minute.
DeShields scored 25 points and hit five 3-pointers to lead the Tar Heels, with four of those coming after halftime. But she missed a 3 for the tie with about 10 seconds left after Chidom hit two free throws to make it 64-61.
"I thought it was going in," DeShields said. "I wanted it. I wanted the ball. Actually, I knew it was going in. It came in and came out."
DeShields also committed a technical foul for taunting Peters after hitting a jaw-dropping step-back 3 with 8:08 left, one of a series of small mistakes that proved costly when Duke pushed ahead late.
UNC made just 2 of 7 free throws in the final 6:14, including reserve N'Dea Bryant making 1 of 2 after being fouled on a jumper after Johnson's go-ahead free throws. The Tar Heels also somehow managed to have the wrong people taking shots at key moments, with Latifah Coleman missing a driving basket as the shot clock wound down in a tie game and Bryant being bailed out on her quick jumper by drawing Elizabeth Williams' fifth foul.
"We made some mistakes down in the end we'd like to be able to replay," UNC associate head coach Andrew Calder said. "But you don't get to do that, so we'll learn from that and we'll drive on."
The Tar Heels won the first meeting in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium 89-78, their first win in the building since 2008. DeShields went for 30 points in that game, then went for 18 in last weekend's 64-60 home win to close the regular season.
North Carolina was poised to add another win against Duke, with DeShields knocking down three 3s and fellow freshman Allisha Gray one of her own to break a 31-all halftime tie and give UNC a 43-35 lead with 16:42 left.
But Duke slowly climbed back in it. Liston made just two shots after halftime, but the second was a huge 3-pointer at the 2:02 mark to cut the Tar Heels' lead to 59-58. Then Williams scored on a stickback to tie the game at 60 with 1:18 left.
Williams finished with 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks, including a big one on Stephanie Mavunga's stickback attempt on Coleman's missed drive. Mavunga fouled Johnson on the scramble for the rebound to set up the go-ahead free throws.
Chidom hit the final two free throws with 9.2 seconds left after DeShields' last miss to seal Duke's trip to the final.
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