Entering this season, Duke had appeared in the ACC championship game just twice in its history and had never won a conference tournament title. Last weekend, one of those things changed. After defeating Maryland 3-2 in the ACC tournament semifinals Friday afternoon, the Blue Devils earned their first tournament championship appearance in eight years and third in the program’s history.
Their championship dreams were foiled, however, when they lost to No. 2 North Carolina 2-1 in the finals Sunday.
Still, head coach Pam Bustin was proud of her squad for reaching the finals, especially given that the team had lost 15 straight ACC games entering the year.
“I can’t say much for the other eight years, but I can say that my team played like a championship team today,” Bustin said after Friday’s match.
The momentum from defeating reigning champion No. 3 Maryland in the semifinals was not enough to help No. 8 Duke overcome North Carolina, the No. 1 seed. The Tar Heels overpowered the third-seeded Blue Devils, setting the game’s tempo at a level that Duke could not match.
North Carolina took the advantage on both shots, 10-3, and penalty corners, 7-0. The Tar Heels converted on two of those seven penalty corner opportunities, and those two scores gave North Carolina a lead early in the second half that would not be relinquished.
“We just kept on believing, kept fighting,” Bustin said. “We played until the end. I think our heart and our love for the game is what kept us in it today.”
The first half, though scoreless, showcased an experienced North Carolina team. Duke kept the Tar Heels at bay until halftime, helped by two saves from senior goalkeeper Samantha Nelson, but was unable to come back from an early goal in the second half.
North Carolina was awarded a penalty corner just under five minutes into the half, and junior Katie Ardrey capitalized to put her team ahead 1-0. Eleven minutes later, senior Elizabeth Stepeans netted a shot to put the Tar Heels up by two.
The Blue Devils would not go away, though. In the 65th minute, freshman Jessica Buttinger finally put Duke on the scoreboard off an assist from junior Devon Gagliardi. Despite another opportunity in the last minute of play—junior Mary Nielsen’s shot from the top of the circle was deflected by North Carolina goalkeeper Sassi Ammer—the Blue Devils were unable to tie the match.
“The team really, really fought through the whole game,” Bustin said. “We just hung in there. For us it was just a great experience to play at that level against a team that has experience in the tournament like Carolina does. That’s something that we can really build on in the NCAA tournament.”
The status of Duke’s season will be determined Nov. 8, when the team hopes to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. Bustin, who was recently named ACC Coach of the Year, thinks her team will get a spot.
“We’ve had a solid year, we’ve had some great wins, and we’ve been pretty consistent this season,” Bustin said. “We’re ready for the [NCAA] tournament. If we have the opportunity to play in it, we’ll be ready to play.”
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