Every week, Duke head coach Robbie Church writes the ACC standings on the board for his team. Then he draws a cutoff line, separating the eight teams that would qualify for the ACC tournament from the teams that would not, if no more games were played.
For the bulk of this season, the Blue Devils (5-6-3, 2-4-2 in the ACC) have been below that line, putting them in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. With five critical games remaining to salvage its tournament hopes, the team, which currently sits 11th in the conference standings, starts a weekend road trip Thursday at Clemson.
"It’s a slap in the face to say, ‘We need to get our act together and start to win games if we want to continue our season for as long as we want it to last,’” redshirt senior forward Kim DeCesare said. “I like that he puts those standings up on the board because it’s a constant reminder that we need to be better.”
The Tigers (7-4-3, 4-3-1) are another middle-of-the-pack ACC team looking to strengthen its tournament resume. Already three games over .500 and sitting in sixth place entering Thursday's contest, Clemson currently seems to be standing on much more solid ground than Duke.
The Blue Devils enter Thursday's tilt with a five-game winning streak against the Tigers on the line. During that span, the Blue Devils have outscored Clemson 17-1. But Church said this year's Tiger team is aggressive, talented and competing at a very high level.
"Clemson's having a very good year, I think [Tiger head coach Eddie Radwanski] has got to be one of the front-runners for coach of the year in the conference," Church said. "They're a very physical group, and they work extremely hard. We have to see how we react to that, because it's something that's given us difficulty in the past. Some of our young ladies are going to get kicked, and you can't go run and hide. We've got to be able to use our speed and our skill and our athleticism against them."
The Tigers are averaging nearly two goals per contest, but that statistic is deceiving. Clemson throttled Alabama A&M Sept. 22, scoring early and often en route to a 14-0 victory. The Tigers have managed just three goals in the five matches since that blowout. With the Alabama A&M game the lone exception, Clemson has found itself in close games all season long. The Tigers have played in five overtime contests this season, emerging with three ties and two losses.
As Duke continues to play must-win game after must-win game, the need to get an early goal is increasingly important, psychologically.
“It gets easier to put your head down if you don’t score that first goal, if you don’t get up early,” DeCesare said. “Our team has done a good job of coming back after we’re scored on, but getting the first goal helps for confidence purposes and gives us more pride.”
For Church, the importance of getting ahead early is purely tactical, especially facing a defensive-oriented Tiger squad.
“If Clemson gets that first goal, they’re going to put a lot of people behind the ball, and it’s going to be very difficult to score,” Church said. “We want to make them come out and play a different way than they like to play. It’s very big but it’s not the total deciding factor of the game. We’ve been up and let it slip, and we’ve come back on people. It helps defensively as well, if we make a mistake now it’s a tie game instead of being down a goal. That’s a big difference.”
With just five guaranteed games left in her college career, DeCesare and the other seniors on the team have been talking about finishing the season strong.
“I think we’re going to keep going with what works for now, so we’ll probably do a lot of the same things [against Clemson] that we did at Maryland—because that’s what worked," Decesare said. “We’ve been trying to keep belief in our program and in ourselves.”
Church said that he still likes his team's chances of finding a way into the tournament, even though the situation remains dicey.
"If we get three points this week or six points with two wins, we're going to bypass a lot of teams," Church said. "There's a lot of games that we have no control over, but right now we're still finding ourselves, which isn't a great thing, but we're playing well right now to where if we can get ourselves in the tournament I think we'll be a very dangerous team."