The first time Duke and North Carolina met this season, two second-half red cards doomed the Blue Devils to an overtime loss. Duke, which will need to make some noise to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, has its tournament chances on the line in today’s edition of the Tobacco Road rivalry.
The seventh-seeded Blue Devils (8-7-2, 3-4-1 in the ACC) and second-seeded Tar Heels (14-2-1, 6-1-1) will square off in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament Tuesday evening at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill.
Duke has entered most of its games this season with an advantage on the defensive end. The Blue Devils rank second in the ACC in shutouts, goals against average and save percentage. They have recorded clean sheets against half of their opponents, a 0.71 goals against average and an 84-percent save rate. Senior goalkeeper James Belshaw blanked the Blue Devils’ past four opponents, including Elon and SIU Edwardsville, which are ranked in the top 30 in RPI.
“Duke defends exceptionally well,” North Carolina head coach Carlos Somoano said. “They have an outstanding goalkeeper and are very hard to break down.”
But No. 3 North Carolina’s defensive advantage reigns supreme. The Tar Heels own the highest shutout percentage in the country, holding 13 of their 17 opponents at nil. Their nation-leading goals-against average of 0.24 is in a league of its own—the next closest team in Division I is Akron at 0.33. North Carolina’s senior goalkeeper Scott Goodwin leads the nation at stopping shots on goal with a 90-percent save rate.
“We returned three of our back four, our goalkeeper and our defensive midfielders, and everybody else was new,” Somoano said. “It’s natural that we had a head start on our defense going into the season based on returning players, familiarity and continuity. They’ve reached another level this year, and we’re very pleased.”
Of the 17 teams that North Carolina has played this season, Duke is one of just four to successfully break through its defensive unit and score against Goodwin. Riley Wolfe tallied a goal against the Tar Heels in the regular-season matchup between Duke and North Carolina. The sophomore midfielder has become an increasingly potent offensive force over the course of the season. He notched two assists against SIU Edwardsville Friday and a goal against Virginia Tech the week before.
“Riley has done a good job of penetrating defenses because he’s a great crosser of the ball, but he’s also a good dribbler,” Blue Devil head coach John Kerr said. “He’s got a great shot on him. He has three dimensions that can hurt you.”
Currently one game above .500, Duke is on the bubble of inclusion to the NCAA Tournament field. A conference tournament win against the third-ranked team in the country would strengthen the Blue Devils’ case, putting to rest concerns about Duke’s ability to compete with the best.
“We will have a great chance to get into the tournament if we win, and there will be lots of question marks if we don’t win,” Kerr said.