If Duke head coach Pam Bustin could use one word to describe her 2014 team, she would use “resilient.”
The No. 7 seed in the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils and their resilience will be put to the test with a matchup against second-seeded rival North Carolina. Tournament host Duke will face off against the Tar Heels at 1:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon at Williams Field at Jack Katz Stadium with the winner advancing to the conference tournament's semifinals.
For the Blue Devils to advance to the next round, they will need to slow down a Tar Heel squad that averages 3.78 goals per game and boasts six All-ACC performers. But Duke is equipped to match up with North Carolina and had three honorees earn all-conference honors as well—redshirt junior goalkeeper Lauren Blazing, Aileen Johnson and Abby Beltrani
The key will be for the Blue Devils to play a full 70 minutes and take advantage of their natural talent.
“This team really is resilient but also willing to make the changes necessary to put the best team out there and to play our best. I think we’re very versatile [and] super talented,” Bustin said. “I hope that the ACC tournament is a place where they… really come out and show it in their hockey.”
The two teams met earlier this season, with the Tar Heels (16-2, 4-2 in the ACC) emerging victorious 1-0 Oct. 17. The familiarity of the two teams raises the ante of competition when these two historically dominant programs compete.
“It’s a great game, a great level of competition,” Bustin said. “[The rivalry] is awesome. I think because we do know each other so well and the kids are friends off the field, it makes that game really fun. It’s a great rivalry, but it’s a really respectful rivalry. I think that shows in the kind of game that they play.”
The Blue Devil upperclassmen will be called upon to lead the young squad and capitalize on their extensive postseason experience. Seniors Beltrani, Jessica Buttinger and Martine Chichizola played in the ACC championship game as freshmen and were part of the Duke (12-5, 2-4) team that advanced to the final round of the NCAA tournament last season.
“We hope that our experienced players step up,” Bustin said. “Because they have the experience, they know better…. It’s important to take that experience and bring it to this group and to lead that way into championships.”
The Blue Devils will rely on Blazing’s continued success in goal as they progress through postseason play. In addition to her All-ACC recognition, the redshirt junior leads the ACC with her 0.791 save percentage and six shutouts this season.
“[Blazing’s] never satisfied with play and always want[s] to improve,” Bustin said. “She’s a natural athlete, but the work she puts into becoming a fantastic goalkeeper is evident. I’m happy that she gets the results that she gets because she’s earned them, and again [she's] just a great role model for the rest of the kids on the team.”
Coming off a tough loss against Syracuse Oct. 25, Duke was able to make the necessary adjustments to emerge triumphant from its contest at Richmond Saturday. The dominant 2-0 victory saw a change in momentum that gives the Blue Devils increased confidence looking ahead.
“It is important going into the ACC tournament.... with the momentum of a win, but more importantly it was a chance for us to kind of get our game back on track,” Bustin said. “A week ago at Syracuse, we weren’t sure what went on with us… so I think it was important to have a chance to play against somebody else before coming to the tournament, and the team really responded well.”
With a win Thursday, the Blue Devils would move on to face the winner of the contest between No. 6 seed Syracuse and No. 3 seed Boston College. And after last year's magical postseason run, Duke knows it only needs to keep building on positive momentum to have a chance to make a deep run.
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