After avenging regular season losses against Stanford and Virginia to reach their second Final Four in the past three years, the Blue Devils finally ran up against a team they could not sneak past on a second try—North Carolina.
The second-seeded Tar Heels shut out No. 6 Duke 2-0 Friday at Phyllis Ockler Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., ending the Blue Devils’ season one game short of a national title game appearance. The semifinal contest between the two Tobacco Road rivals was a tight defensive battle, with North Carolina making the saves it needed to fend off Duke and punch its ticket to the national championship game against top-ranked Syracuse.
Redshirt senior Lauren Blazing made two saves and senior Hannah Barrecca paced the Blue Devils on offense with three shots. But Tar Heel freshman Malin Evert stole the show, netting both of her team’s goals to send North Carolina on to Sunday’s title match and send the Blue Devils home.
“For us, it’s a takeaway to get better in the future,” Duke head coach Pam Bustin told GoDuke.com. “[The] little things matter and in the key moments.... I think that’s what it comes down to. I couldn’t be more proud of the type of hockey we played today.”
Duke (14-7) played North Carolina (21-2) close for the full 70 minutes, but the Tar Heels capitalized on the few opportunities that the Blue Devils gave them to walk away with the win.
North Carolina’s first score came in the third minute after a whistle set up a penalty corner. A routine defensive play suddenly went sour after a miscue by the Duke defense sent the ball rolling right to the stick of Evert. The Bad Schwartau, Germany, native immediately fired a shot from the right side of the circle and handed her team a lead it would not surrender.
“North Carolina did a really good job of just stepping in front and getting a touch on the ball,” Blazing told GoDuke.com. “They do a good job executing their corners, and I think our defense did a good job of staying in front all day long and they took advantage of the couple of moments that we were behind.”
The early score forced the Blue Devils to bring pressure of their own, as Duke put together a solid offensive performance. Bustin’s squad launched seven shots toward the cage, with four of them landing on target.
But North Carolina goalkeeper Shannon Johnson refused to give an inch.
The Ocean Port, N.J., native posted two critical stops on otherwise clear goal-scoring opportunities to guide her team safely into the championship game.
Johnson completed a shutout against Michigan in the second round of the tournament and entered Friday’s contest as the third toughest goalkeeper to get by in the ACC, allowing just 1.2 goals per game.
The junior—and the younger sister of Duke senior Aileen Johnson—will match up against the ACC’s stingiest goalkeeper in Syracuse’s Jess Jecko when the two ACC squads face on another in the national championship game Sunday at 1 p.m.
“At this level—in this final weekend—it’s going to be tight, it’s going to go back and forth and it is going to come down to critical moments,” Bustin said. “They made some great critical defensive saves. And two defensive saves in the game can change it, and it did.”
The run to the Final Four was also a curtain call for Duke seniors Amanda Kim, Sarah Urdahl, Blazing, Barreca and Johnson. The group of five compiled an overall record of 51-31 during their careers and guided the program to two Final Four appearances and a birth in the 2013 NCAA title game.
Bustin and her staff will have their hands full looking for a way to replace their impact on the team in the offseason.
“These kids are just a special group of student-athletes and it’s such a privilege to coach them,” Bustin said. “That’s what makes this so emotional…. To see where they are now as leaders and as field hockey players is remarkable, and as a coach you are just so proud of that.”
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