Before Friday afternoon, none of the 21 players on the Duke field hockey roster had played in a Final Four game. Now they have the chance to win the first championship in program history.
The fourth-seeded Blue Devils will face Connecticut in the national championship game Sunday at 4 p.m. at the L.R. Hill Sports Complex in Norfolk, Va. Duke advanced with a 3-2 semifinal win against first-seeded Maryland Friday, and the Huskies bested third-seeded North Carolina 2-1 in a shootout.
The win against the Terrapins, who had previously beat the Blue Devils twice in the month of November, has given the team confidence and energy heading into the final game of the year.
“There is just a lot of excitement and confidence,” junior forward Jessica Buttinger said “We put in the work and we deserve to be where we are. Right now it is really about playing for each other and having fun too.”
Big East champion Connecticut (20-4), comes into Sunday's championship game riding a seven-game winning streak. The Blue Devils will face another high-powered offense, as Connecticut has scored 78 goals this season, the sixth-highest total in the nation.
Duke is 3-0 all-time against the Huskies, winning 2-1 in the teams' last meeting on Nov. 15, 2008. Head coach Pam Bustin has experience playing Connecticut, facing the team multiple times during her tenure as head coach at Louisville, including overtime losses in the Big East championship game in 2005 and 2006.
“[Connecticut] is a great team, an aggressive team,” Bustin said. “They have some key players that have some great experience and some great talent. For us it is just going to be managing their key people and playing our game.”
Duke enters the national championship game peaking at just the right time. The team's offense has scored 13 goals in just three NCAA tournament games, averaging 4.33 goals per game. Before the tournament, the Blue Devils averaged just 2.45 goals per game.
Senior forward Emmie Le Marchand, who leads the team with 17 goals on the season, has scored five in the NCAA tournament. Coupled with forwards Buttinger and freshman Heather Morris, who each have scored eight goals this season, the Duke attack has become a force to reckon with.
“Over the last couple games we have really been connecting on the forward line and it just felt like all over the field, we were really putting [the pressure] on,” Buttinger said. “That was just the mentality of the game, to get in the circle, get some shots early and try to convert.”
Opposing teams in the tournament have not had much success against the Blue Devil defense, either.
Duke held Maryland, which led the country in goals scored, to just two goals in Saturday’s matchup. Even though the Terrapins took 19 shots, goalkeeper Lauren Blazing made 12 saves to keep the ball out of the cage.
The Blue Devil defensive line will need to keep an eye on forward Chloe Hunnable, who leads Connecticut with 22 goals in 24 games this season. Duke has had success in shutting down star players on opposing teams, as Maryland forward and ACC Offensive Player of the Year Jill Witmer did not score in any of the teams’ three matchups.
“We need make sure that we keep to our structure and be disciplined in our defensive in our defensive roles,” Bustin said.
Although a chance at making history would be the main purpose for any other team that would take the field Sunday, the Blue Devil players, especially the seniors, are thrilled to be on the field playing as a team for one last time.
“We are excited that we have the opportunity to play again with each other,” Buttinger said.
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