Meet Duke—the underdogs. The only team in the ACC to be winless in conference play, the Blue Devils lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year and did not even earn a berth the year before.
Meet Maryland—the favorites. The Terrapins own three ACC wins this season and are the two-time defending national champions.
“At this point, we have absolutely nothing to lose,” Blue Devil junior Emmie Le Marchand said. “It’s pumping us up. Everyone loves to be the underdog.”
The bottom-seeded squad in the ACC tournament, Duke (7-10, 0-5 in the ACC) hopes to make a deep postseason run, starting with their quarterfinal matchup against the third-seeded Terrapins (14-4, 3-2) Thursday afternoon in Chapel Hill.
Maryland ranks fourth in the nation in average goals per game with 4.17. The Terrapins boast a well-rounded offense with six players who have tallied at least seven goals this season.
“We have the luxury of having a very deep attack,” Maryland head coach Missy Meharg said. “We have a lot of women who are potent.”
Duke’s organized backfield held the Terrapins to just two goals in the regular season game between the two teams Oct. 6. Maryland’s 2-0 shutout was a hot-button issue for the Blue Devils, who scored a goal that was called back by the referees. The tally, which would have tied the game at one before halftime, could have generated game-changing momentum for Duke.
“We felt pretty wronged after the first Maryland game,” Le Marchand said. “We had a corner, which we scored on that [the referees] disallowed, [and] every replay since has proved that it definitely should have been a goal. It would have changed the whole course of the game.”
The Blue Devils know, however, that they cannot concentrate on the hypotheticals from the regular season. Instead, they are focused on the looming opportunity to prove themselves as a serious contender in the ACC. Duke head coach Pam Bustin noted the importance of executing on offense and pressing to transition to attack.
“As soon as we come up with the ball, we need to think about how we are getting on in our attacking lines and getting in our attacking structure,” Bustin said. “Hopefully against a team like Maryland that’s something we’re going to be able to execute.”
In addition to focusing on capitalizing on their offensive opportunities, the Blue Devils have been continuing to hone a new defensive strategy that they implemented against Virginia’s quick and threatening offensive unit Saturday. Their defense utilizes three marking backs and a cover player controlling open space. In the past, that cover player was a defensive midfielder. Against the Cavaliers, a center back served as the cover player. This new approach helped Duke limit Virginia to three goals, less than the Cavaliers’ 4.11 per-game average. Executing this strategy even more effectively could be the difference maker in Thursday’s matchup.
Bustin credited the Blue Devils with “tremendous improvement” since their loss to the Terrapins earlier this season. She spoke for the whole team when she said that she is looking forward to seeing the implications of this improvement for the postseason. But Meharg made similar remarks about Maryland, noting its growth as a team.
“At this juncture in November, when it’s tournament time, you’re looking at two teams who are reaching their peak, and their best hockey is probably yet to be seen,” Meharg said.
Duke hopes that its “best hockey” will be on display Thursday. Currently below .500, the Blue Devils will need an impressive ACC tournament run in order to earn the winning record needed to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament.