PHILADELPHIA — Duke is headed back to the regional final, hoping for a different outcome this time.
Karima Christmas had 23 points and nine rebounds, Jasmine Thomas scored 19 points and the Blue Devils beat DePaul 70-63 on Sunday to reach the regional final for the second consecutive year.
Duke (32-3) will play top-seeded Connecticut on Tuesday night with the Final Four at stake. The Huskies thumped Duke 81-57 on Jan. 31.
Chelsea Gray scored 16 points for the Blue Devils, who raced to a 15-point lead and had to hold on after the big advantage nearly evaporated late in the second half.
DePaul’s Deirde Naughton hit two 3-pointers in less than a minute that cut the lead to three each time. The Blue Devils wrapped it up at the free-throw line.
Naughton scored 17 points for DePaul (29-7), which has never played in a regional final.
Duke lost to Baylor in its regional final last year.
The Blue Demons had no answer for Christmas on either end of the court. She attacked the lane for easy buckets and got to the free-throw line 14 times.
She led the Blue Devils to their ninth consecutive victory and clearly they feel they’re a different team than the one that faced the Huskies in their first meeting.
Duke coasted until late in the second half, when the Blue Demons were on the brink of pulling off their latest big comeback. Naughton’s second 3-pointer of the game in front of a jubilant Blue Demons bench made it 63-60 with 50.4 seconds left. She again delivered a clutch 3, this one with 24.7 seconds remaining and it was 66-63.
It was just too late.
The Blue Devils survived a 1-for-10 effort from the 3-point line and sealed the win with a 21-for-29 performance from the free-throw line.
The Blue Demons were back in Pennsylvania after winning two games in State College, Pa., to advance to the round of 16 for only the second time in school history.
They trailed by 14 last week against Penn State before storming back to win by two.
No stranger to comebacks, DePaul did its best to extend its stay in the Keystone State. Keisha Hampton, Anna Martin and Sam Quigley each hit 3s that sliced a 15-point hole down to 49-42.
Naughton’s two free throws made it 57-53 with 2:54 left – a preview of her late-game baskets that nearly gave DePaul a victory.
DePaul coach Doug Bruno led the third-seeded Blue Demons to their highest single-season win total in team history. Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie was a summer basketball camp counselor for Bruno during her playing days at Northwestern.
Duke’s Blue Devil mascot taped a sign stretched horn-to-horn that read “Demons work 4 me.”
For 20 minutes, it was true.
Duke made a habit of slow starts this year, and it nearly cost the Blue Devils in a second-round game against Marist. They needed an 11-0 run in the final minutes to knock off the 10th-seeded Red Foxes.
Not this time. Not with so much on the line.
They used a 20-7 spurt over the final 10 minutes of the first half to take control. The Blue Devils harassed DePaul into 11 turnovers. Balls were stripped on driving layups and Thomas swatted the ball with such force the “whack!” was heard in the last row of the upper deck.
Hampton was a non-factor in the first half. Hampton, DePaul’s leading scorer at 16.1 points, was held to five and gave the Philadelphia native little for her own pocket of fans to cheer for.
UConn’s Geno Auriemma stopped Bruno for a small chat outside a locker room before tip. Auriemma told him his team was “unbelievable” and he was surprised to learn Hampton was a junior.
“You’re definitely the favorites next year,” Auriemma told his Big East rival, smiling.
For this week, that title still belongs to the Huskies.
It’s up to the Blue Devils to wrest it away.