In last year’s regular-season finale, Duke traveled to Chapel Hill looking to tarnish then-No. 3 North Carolina’s perfect conference record and nine-game winning streak. The Tar Heels came away with a 16-8 victory, sending the Blue Devils into the postseason on a sour note.
This year, much more than Tobacco Road bragging rights are on the line.
After winning just one ACC game and sitting at one game better than .500 for the season, Duke finds itself at the bottom of the conference standings and at risk of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 19 years. No. 4 North Carolina sits at the other end of the spectrum with a chance to claim its third consecutive ACC regular-season title.
A win in Saturday’s 1 p.m. contest at Koskinen Stadium means very different things to each side of the rivalry. For North Carolina, it could mean a third straight regular-season conference title. For the Blue Devils, it would likely seal an NCAA tournament bid and give head coach Kerstin Kimel’s team much-needed confidence.
Despite an early-season loss at No. 2 Maryland Feb. 25, the Tar Heels (12-2, 5-1 in the ACC) cruised through the majority of their conference schedule, rattling off nine straight wins including six against ranked opponents. However, North Carolina enters Saturday’s contest having just sustained its first loss in conference play.
Then-No. 11 Syracuse—which barely slipped past the Blue Devils 10-9 at Koskinen Stadium April 2—defeated the then-No. 2 Tar Heels 13-11 in Chapel Hill last weekend, snapping their 18-game ACC winning streak dating back to 2015. North Carolina is now locked in a tight race with the Orange for the ACC crown. Both teams have only suffered a single loss in ACC play with just one contest remaining.
If both teams win Saturday, the regular-season title goes to Syracuse because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the Orange lose at Louisville, however, the Tar Heels will once again get the No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA tournament.
Duke (8-7, 1-5) has seen almost the opposite trajectory to North Carolina’s. After starting the season with four consecutive wins, the Blue Devils emerged victorious in just one of their next six games. The low point of its season came when Duke fell out of the rankings after a blowout loss at then-No. 13 Pennsylvania. The Blue Devils then failed to recover for their next contest and suffered an embarrassing 18-5 loss to then-No. 20 Virginia March 25.
Other than a narrow defeat of then-No. 16 Elon four days later and an upset at then-No.14 Boston College April 8, Duke has failed to amass quality wins and subsequently finds its postseason prospects hanging in the balance. The Blue Devils currently sit just outside the top 20, with only 26 teams making the NCAA tournament.
But after dropping a disappointing 12-10 decision at No. 17 Northwestern Saturday, Duke ripped off of a 20-goal victory against Presbyterian Monday night to build some positive momentum. The Blue Devils’ offensive onslaught featured 11 different scorers and hat tricks from junior Kyra Harney, freshman Catherine Cordrey and sophomore Ellie Majure.
Duke will have to build on the offensive firepower and stalwart defensive effort it showed earlier in the week to mount an upset bid against the reigning national champions. And it will take more than momentum for the Blue Devils to take down a team as deep and talented as this year’s North Carolina squad.
The Tar Heels’ prolific offense features 2016 All-Americans Molly Hendrick and Marie McCool, who have combined for 82 goals in their 14 games on the season. Seven players on North Carolina’s roster have tallied 28 or more points so far this year, and the Tar Heels rank 15th in the country with 7.6 assists per game.
Both Duke and North Carolina excel on the draw. The Tar Heels rank first nationally with 16.8 draw controls per game, and the Blue Devils rank 14th with 14.7. In a highly-anticipated matchup, North Carolina senior Sammy Jo Tracy, the No. 5 draw controller in the country with 108 draw controls on the season, will face off against Duke sophomore Olivia Jenner—who ranks 10th in the same category with 6.0 draws per game.
Jenner’s efforts in the draw circle are supplemented by a combined 76 draw controls from junior All American Maddie Crutchfield and senior defender Maura Schwitter this season. Only one other player on the Tar Heel roster has collected more than 20 draw controls this year, a key area to watch as the Blue Devils look to keep the ball away from North Carolina’s potent offense.
Following Saturday’s matchup, Duke will enter next week’s ACC tournament as one of the bottom four seeds depending on the outcomes of this weekend’s contests.