The Blue Devils are playing with a chip on their shoulder.
After ending a 10-year drought Friday by defeating then-No. 7 North Carolina, Duke has broken back into the rankings at No. 22. But top 25 status is not enough to satisfy a team anxious to make a deep NCAA tournament run.
“I think we’re better than that,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “I still think we have a lot to prove.”
With just three games remaining in the regular season, the time for Church’s squad to strengthen its postseason resume is now. Seven games into ACC play, the Blue Devils (8-4-4, 2-2-3 in the ACC) have seen only two conference opponents at home and are ready to begin a three-game home stretch which begins Thursday at 7 p.m. against Pittsburgh, followed by a 1 p.m. start Sunday against No. 15 Notre Dame.
The Panthers (10-4-1, 4-3-0) are much improved under fourth-year head coach Greg Miller’s leadership. Pittsburgh boasts a win against Louisville—a team Duke tied—on their conference resume but will need another big victory in order to be selected for the NCAA tournament.
“Everybody thinks they’re going to lose, so they’re going to come out and play very, very hard and throw a lot of things at us,” Church said. “We’ve been that team before, so we know how hard you come out and play.”
Pittsburgh is led by the duo of freshman Jarena Harmon and sophomore Taylor Pryce. The star forwards combine for 12 of the Panthers’ 25 goals. Church said Harmon and Pryce have impressed him with their ability to quickly charge the goal and be a dangerous combination on the counterattack.
Perhaps an even bigger test will arrive Sunday in the form of Notre Dame (11-3-1, 4-3-0). However, the similarities between the two squads are eerie. The Fighting Irish have scored 27 goals to the Blue Devils’ 26. Duke has allowed four more goals, though that statistic includes the uncharacteristically high-scoring loss at Virginia Tech in which the Blue Devils allowed four scores.
“To me they look like almost a carbon copy of us,” Church said. “They possess the ball, they keep the ball, but they haven’t scored a lot of goals and they haven’t given up many goals…. What happens [when we meet]? That will be a huge game.”
Forward Anna Maria Gilbertson has been dominant for the Fighting Irish, scoring eight goals already this season—double the number added by any other member of her team. Gilbertson has put 35 of her 82 shots on target this year, forcing opposing defenses to work to turn her attempts away. Efficiency has been an Achilles’ heel so far this season for Duke—the Blue Devils are converting just 8.2 percent of their looks.
“If there’s one area you could point to in [our] team about what do we have to do going into the NCAA tournament? We’ve got to finish opportunities,” Church said. “You can be the better team—which we’ve proven a lot this year—and still not win the game if you don’t finish your opportunities. That’s where a lot of focus will go in training.”
Although freshmen Kayla McCoy and Taylor Racioppi have been the Blue Devils’ most successful weapons on the attack, Church said midfielders Imani Dorsey and Toni Payne add a dimension of aggression on the field and their movements on and toward the ball enable their teammates to find openings. In the win at North Carolina, Dorsey’s foresight allowed sophomore Ashton Miller to find her for the game-wining score.
The victory against the team’s biggest rival was not only satisfying but also solidified Duke as an NCAA tournament team. But with the three-game final stretch to come at home, Church’s squad seeks to make their case to begin the postseason in Durham as well.
Church called the loss to the Hokies a turning point for the Blue Devils, not only in overall performance but also in the team’s focus.
“I just see a whole new level of commitment from our group. I don’t know if it’s toward the end of the year and they realize ‘Hey, we have to do this to get to the tournament. We don’t want to be left out again,’” Church said. “But I just think there’s a whole new air around the program and hopefully that will continue to be there.”