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Duke field hockey set to take on Northwestern in first round of NCAA tournament

Abby Beltrani and the two other Blue Devil seniors will try to extend their Duke careers Saturday against the Wildcats.
Abby Beltrani and the two other Blue Devil seniors will try to extend their Duke careers Saturday against the Wildcats.

Duke’s season stays alive with an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

The seventh-seeded Blue Devils will face Northwestern Saturday at 2 p.m. at host North Carolina’s Francis E. Henry Stadium. After losing to the Tar Heels Thursday Nov. 6 1-0 in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, Duke joined seven other schools in receiving at-large bids in last Sunday’s selection show.

“Any year you find a way to get into the NCAA tournament is successful,” head coach Pam Bustin said. “We played a tough game on Thursday against No. 1 UNC, and that was proven enough—to ourselves, anyway—that we’re ready for the NCAA tournament. We’re really excited, and we’re happy about the opportunity.”

The Wildcats (16-6) earned an automatic bid to the tournament after upsetting No. 2 and top-seeded Maryland in the Big Ten final Nov. 9—the first tournament title for Northwestern. Saturday will mark the Wildcats’ first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 20 years, while the Blue Devils (12-6) have qualified three times in the past four seasons.

The contest will feature two highly represented conferences for this year’s tournament. The Big Ten and ACC combine for nine teams in the tournament and seven-of-eight at-large bids. The ACC tops the list with six teams playing Saturday out of a conference with just seven teams.

“This has been a crazy year nationally—crazy in a good way,” Bustin said. “The parity is so much greater and there are teams posting up some good wins and some good records outside of our conference…. But if you’re in the ACC you definitely get an edge in not only getting into the tournament, but doing well in the tournament.”

In the teams’ sixth all-time matchup, Duke will look to even the series record 3-3 after two consecutive season losses at home in 2012 and 2013. Although the teams have yet to play this season, Northwestern fell to two ACC teams in September, dropping 1-0 contests to both Louisville and eventual ACC champion Wake Forest.

The Wildcats boast three players with 11-plus goals on the season, led by sophomore forward Dominique Masters’ 15 goals. Junior midfielder Charlotte Martin ranks 10th nationally for her 0.77 assists-per-game average, helping her team to a 0.727 winning percentage for the year.

“They’re a well-coached, very disciplined team with some great individual players—great players in general, but that’s what we like,” Bustin said. “It’s going to be a good game; it’s going to challenge us. When we are challenged we play our best, and that’s what I’m hoping for.”

The Blue Devil backfield has kept opponents to low-scoring efforts all season with just 1.09 goals against on average—No. 5 nationally—and six shutouts so far. The defense has recovered from the loss of junior defender Amanda Kim, who missed four games in October but returned in time for the final two regular-season matchups.

“It’s great to be back on the field,” Kim said. “I missed it a lot. I always try to bring a level-headed sense to the field and bring my communication skills, so I think everybody appreciates that, and I just love being back.”

The Richmond, Va., native started every game of the 2013 NCAA tournament including the loss to Connecticut in the championship. Kim—along with seven fellow upperclassmen—have led a young team through a turbulent season. After staring out 9-1, Duke lost five of its next nine games to jeopardize its chances of successfully entering the 2014 tournament.

“As a team, we’re just fortunate to get the opportunity to play again, so, honestly, I’ll take whatever way of getting in,” Kim said. “Every team that’s made it into the tournament is awesome, so it’s going to be a battle…. No matter who the team is, we’re going to play Duke field hockey.”

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