The No. 25 Blue Devils dropped their season finale to No. 4 North Carolina by a score of 3-0 Thursday night at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill, but thanks to an upset win by N.C. State, they will still make the ACC tournament and play Florida State in Sunday’s quarterfinal round.
“This has to hurt going forward,” head coach Robbie Church said. “Our egos have to be bruised. We can’t do anything about this now, but we’re fortunate enough to be playing for an ACC championship Sunday, and this game has to motivate us.”
Sitting at sixth in the ACC to start the night, there was only one scenario out of 81 possible combinations that would knock the Blue Devils out of the playoffs. They would have to lose to the Tar Heels, Maryland would have to beat Pittsburgh, Boston College would have to defeat Syracuse, and Wake Forest would need a tie with the Wolfpack.
With wins coming from both the Eagles and Terrapins, Duke benefited from a 2-1 Demon Deacon loss, giving Duke the seventh seed and a first-round matchup against Florida State despite their weak showing in Chapel Hill.
“We just didn’t play in the first half,” Church said. “Obviously you have to give Carolina a lot of credit for taking us out of what we wanted to do, but a lot of it was us. A lot of it was we didn’t make good decisions, we had more time than we thought we did on the ball, but they pressure so well, and for some reason when we get over here, we just forced things.”
It was all Tar Heels from the first whistle. Duke opened the game with its characteristic kickoff, giving away possession by playing a big kick deep into North Carolina territory. For the rest of the half, the Blue Devils didn’t see much of the ball.
“We weren’t able to ever find our rhythm,” senior Mollie Pathman said. “They’re a high-pressure team, and I think we kind of just gave them more credit in their pressure and just played into their style, and it worked for them. We just couldn’t keep the ball.”
Led by seniors Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai as well as freshman forward Amber Munerlyn, the Tar Heels deftly passed the ball in their final third, creating a bevy of looks—but all from outside the 18-yard box. Duke goalkeeper Meaghan Thomas stayed busy, fielding a shot on goal and multiple dangerous loose balls in the first 10 minutes as North Carolina built up a 5-1 shot advantage.
Then after 26 minutes of play, Ohai, Munerlyn and Dunn turned up the heat. Ohai fired a shot from just outside the 18-yard box, only to be stopped by a diving Thomas. Thomas then proceeded to make a fingertip save on a floater shot from Alexa Neufield, escaped a shot following a dangerous passing combination from Ohai and Dunn and benefited from a wide-open miss by the home team.
“What we were trying to do was condense, and if they wanted to take shots from distance, we were going to let them do that,” senior defender Natasha Anasi said. “Credit to them, they were still able to find goals afterwards.”
Although Dunn—who led the Tar Heels with 12 goals heading into the contest—had little trouble weaving through Duke’s midfield, the Blue Devils were able to effectively contain her with pestering defense from senior Kim DeCesare playing in a holding midfield role, double teams, and strong play in goal.
“Crystal Dunn’s a great, great player, and Ohai’s a great player too, but I thought we did a really good job of falling, compacting, not giving them any space behind, giving some shots outside,” Church said.
The play that finally did in Duke came from a far less likely source.
Off a long throw-in from Kelly McFarlane on the left sideline reached the near corner of the 6-yard box, midfielder Hannah Gardner headed a ball to the penalty hash. North Carolina midfielder Cameron Castleberry shot the ball into a Duke defender but was able to get her own rebound and fire it by Thomas on the Tar Heels' 16th shot of the first half.
The Blue Devils, on the other hand, managed just one on shot for the period. Heading into the break, Church knew the team needed a change.
“[For the second half,] we had to be courageous in the sense of making the right decisions,” he said. “We had to put passes together.”
Upon returning to the pitch for the second half, however, the Tar Heels made sure not to let their dominant first-half performance go to waste. Getting a ball across the top of the 18-yard box, the Tar Heels found an unmarked Brooke Elby, who fired a low shot into the left corner for a 2-0 lead. From there, North Carolina was content to pack in its defense, taking just two more shots the rest of the match.
In the 72nd minute, the Tar Heels sealed the deal as Summer Green finished off a penalty kick into the top left corner past Thomas, burying the Blue Devils 3-0.
“[Tonight] it didn’t fall in our favor,” Anasi said. “So we just kind of have to shake this off and erase this because we have to focus on the games that are in the tournament.”