The Blue Devils are hoping that the third time will be the charm when they face a familiar foe in the Final Four.
After first- and second-round wins against New Hampshire and Massachusetts fourth-seeded Duke will face the ACC champion, top-seeded Maryland, for the third time this season Friday at 2 p.m. in Norfolk, Va. The winner will play either North Carolina or Connecticut in the championship game Sunday at 4 p.m.
This will be the teams' third matchup in the past three weeks. The Blue Devils lost to the Terrapins 5-1 Nov. 2 and fell 3-2 in overtime in the ACC tournament semifinal Nov. 8.
“In the first game against them, we didn’t show up,” senior forward Emmie Le Marchand said. “The team that played that game was not who we are. There were elements of that in the first half of the ACC tournament [game], but in the second half, that is the team that we have been all season.”
This will be Duke's first appearance in the Final Four since 2006. The Blue Devils (17-6) have only gone to the title game three times in program history and have never won a national championship.
“It’s the goal every year to make it to the Final Four,” Duke head coach Pam Bustin said. “It was last year’s goal too. This is the year it comes together, this is the year we have taken care of certain opportunities. [The team] has stayed with it for 365 days and here we are.”
It has been a tale of two different Blue Devil teams in two matchups with Maryland (22-1). In the regular-season contest, the Terrapins built a 3-0 lead by halftime before adding two second-half goals to put a damper on Duke’s Senior Day.
Just a week later, the Blue Devils found themselves on the field with Maryland again in the ACC tournament. The Terrapins built a 2-0 lead by halftime, but this time the Duke attack responded. Forward Abby Beltrani and defender Hannah Barreca scored two late goals in the second period, and a number of critical saves by goalkeeper Lauren Blazing prevented Maryland from taking a lead.
The game went to overtime, where it took only 3:52 for the Terrapins to strike when forward Maxine Fluharty scored off of a rebound. Maryland would advance to the ACC Championship game, which it would win 2-0 against No. 3 North Carolina.
The statistics explain Maryland’s dominance this season. Its attack is averaging a nation’s best 4.27 goals per game, and the team's defense is only giving up 1.17 goals per game, good for seventh in the nation.
The Terrapins are led by senior forward Jill Witmer, who has found the back of the net 19 times on the season. She has garnered All-ACC accolades for the past four years and was named the 2013 ACC Offensive Player of the Year.
But the Duke defense has held Witmer scoreless in their two meetings this season, something that will have to continue if the Blue Devils have a chance of pulling off the upset.
“We are just going to take them like any other team,” senior defender Brenna Rescigno said. “We are just going stick to playing tight defense in the circle and marking up, but really keeping an eye on Jill Witmer.”
The Duke defense has only allowed two goals in its first two NCAA tournament wins. But it will have its hands full with the Terrapin attack, meaning Blazing will see a lot of action in the goal. She ranks fifth in the nation by stopping 79 percent of the shots she's faced this season.
One of the keys for the Blue Devils will be to get off to a fast start. Duke has not lost a game this season in which it scored first, and the Blue Devils surrendered early goals in each of their two previous losses to Maryland.
“It is just a build up of us working incredibly hard all season, especially coming into the postseason,” Le Marchand said. “Making a big effort to put it on [the other team] early.”
Duke will likely be without the services of Cherry Seaborn on Friday, as the forward sustained an injury during last Saturday’s first round game against New Hampshire and did not play in the win over Massachusetts.
After winning just seven games in 2012 and missing the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils have a chance to accomplish something no Duke team has before. But Rescigno said the journey this team has made to reach the Final Four will ultimately trump the final result.
"This is something we all strived for since we were little kids, and it's going to be one of the greatest experiences," Resicgno said. "No matter how it ends, I will be happy with our success this season."
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.