CHESTER, Pa.—When they met earlier in the year with the ACC regular-season title on the line, it was barely a contest as North Carolina rolled past Duke 12-6.
The two teams met again Friday with much more at stake—and the result was almost exactly the same.
The second-seeded Tar Heels knocked off the third-seeded Blue Devils 16-7 in the national semifinals Friday evening at PPL Park. North Carolina rode a 6-0 second-half run and five points from junior Aly Messinger as it advanced to its second national championship game in three years, ending the careers of eight Duke seniors in the process and dropping the program’s all-time record in national semifinal games to 0-7.
“In the second half, looking at where we were in the game, we had to change our defense,” head coach Kerstin Kimel said. “And it’s a risk, but it’s a risk you have to take if you want to get back in the game. I think they paid off in getting some turnovers for them or getting some shots that [goalkeeper] Kelsey [Duryea] could save. But the reality was that you can only play so much defense—there’s going to be some cracks against a really good team at this level in the semifinal game.”
Coming out to start the second half trailing by three, it looked as if the Blue Devils (16-5) were primed to make a run to get back in the game. Senior Kerrin Maurer fed classmate Taylor Trimble for a goal in front of the net two minutes into the half to cut the Tar Heel lead to two.
But that was as close as Duke would get, as the Tar Heels (18-3) promptly responded with a four-goal barrage in less than five minutes that stretched their advantage to 11-5. Sophomore Maggie Bill—one of four North Carolina players to eclipse the 40-point mark on the year—found the back of the net twice during the crucial stretch, and junior Sammy Jo Tracy and sophomore Stephanie Lobb scored one goal apiece.
Sloppy offense by Duke did not help the cause, as 11 turnovers frequently gave the ball back to North Carolina and kept play in the Blue Devils’ defensive end. The Tar Heels outshot Duke 11-3 in the first 15 minutes of the second half, as they dominated possession and extended their lead from 7-4 to 12-5.
“They’re obviously a very athletic team, a very fast team and it’s something we worked on all week,” Maurer said. “They’re able to frazzle teams in their own offensive 30 and within the midfield, and I think at times we weren’t able to handle that pressure as well as we would’ve like to execute. So I think that caused that lapse in goals and led to kind of a drought.”
North Carolina outplayed the Blue Devils for much of the first half, but Duke managed to keep the game close early on. Messinger—the Tar Heels' leading scorer who eclipsed the 40-goal mark with her performance Friday—got North Carolina on the board quickly with a score just 50 seconds into the game. The Tar Heels maintained their lead for most of the first half, closing with a 5-1 run in the final 13:40 to take a 7-4 lead into the locker room.
Duryea turned in a strong performance in net, amassing six saves in the first half and a season-high 10 overall as she moved into fourth place on the Blue Devils’ all-time list. The Beverly, Mass., native faced plenty of action early and often, as North Carolina fired off 17 shots on goal in the first 30 minutes and 34 for the game. The Tar Heels held a 17-10 edge in shots and had a 4-1 advantage in field position shots in the opening period, but strong defense and some great saves from Duryea kept North Carolina from lighting up the scoreboard early.
“I actually thought, relative to our first game [against North Carolina], that our defense played really well. I thought the trouble was that we didn’t have the ball enough,” Kimel said. “Especially in the first half, we did a really good job of shutting down their looks and taking away things and then scrapping and coming up with the ball. The problem became then that we didn’t necessarily take care of it in our clear or on the offensive side.”
The Tar Heels will now square off against top-seeded Maryland—which defeated Syracuse 10-8 in the other semifinal—Sunday at 8:30 p.m. as they look to capture the second title in program history.
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