The theme of the Blue Devils’ NCAA tournament run has been redemption—and their Final Four matchup against their Tar Heel rivals will be no exception.
No. 6 Duke will face second-seeded North Carolina Friday, looking to avenge its 2-1 loss in Chapel Hill Oct. 16. The Blue Devils and the Tar Heels will square off at 2:45 p.m. for the second semifinal match of the day at Michigan’s Phyllis Ocker Field in Ann Arbor, Mich., with a date in the national championship game at stake.
When the Tobacco Road rival squads met in the regular season, North Carolina (20-2) found the back of the cage twice in the opening period. Although its defense rallied to shut out the Tar Heels in the second half, Duke (14-6) could not capitalize on opportunities to overcome the deficit.
“It was a great game, that first game, and we definitely had our chances and opportunities,” Duke head coach Pam Bustin said. “Against a good team and good opponent like UNC…we have to make sure we are more prepared and anticipate those opportunities so we can finish on them. We have to bring our best game.”
North Carolina held a 15-9 advantage in shots in the teams’ regular season matchup, with seniors Casey Di Nardo, Emily Wold and 6-foot Nina Notman combining for nine of the team’s attempts—including Di Nardo’s goal off a penalty corner in the 27th minute.
The Blue Devils will focus on containing the upperclassmen as well as sophomore forward Gab Major, who has tallied 17 goals this season, including five game-winners.
“They have a lot of key players,” junior forward Heather Morris said. “We did a great job against Virginia of taking out some of their key players and really playing our game, and I think that will be a big focus. UNC has a lot of talent, so we have to play our game and understand that we have to watch the key players.”
Duke will carry the momentum of one of its best defensive efforts this season into Friday’s match. The Blue Devils earned their trip to the Final Four by shutting out Virginia through the last 59 minutes of play on its home turf—nearly a complete reversal of Duke’s 4-2 and 5-1 losses on the same blue field in the regular season and first round of the ACC tournament, respectively.
But the squad’s aggressive attack in the opening period also produced one of Duke’s best offensive performances in recent games. The Blue Devils outshot the Cavaliers 9-4 in the first half and found the back of the cage in the ninth minute, striking first in regulation for only the third time in nine games with a tip-in by Morris off a pass from senior Sarah Urdahl.
Senior Amanda Kim drove the ball in off a penalty corner for the goal that would seal the win for Duke and punch its ticket to Ann Arbor—the second trip to the Final Four for Kim and her classmates.
“It was my second goal of the season, so the fact that it was a game-winner was pretty awesome,” Kim said. “It feels weird. I can’t believe it is my last tournament. I’m just excited for us to go out there and show what we have been working on since January. Hopefully we will get to the final game and change the result from my sophomore year and get a win this time.”
In 2013, Duke advanced to the title match of the NCAA tournament but fell to Connecticut 2-0. Kim, fellow seniors Aileen Johnson, Hannah Barreca and Sarah Urdahl and redshirt senior Lauren Blazing wrapped up an impressive sophomore season, helping the Blue Devils reach the final game and win 17 games for the first time in eight years. But the team’s five seniors hope to go one step further this weekend.
“Now you look back and think, ‘Man, they were young. They were puppies.’ And now they are our leaders,” Bustin said. “They definitely earned something from that experience two years ago and have grown as individuals and have grown as a leadership unit throughout those two years. I am so proud of them and so excited that they get to experience this again and share that experience with the underclassmen. That is a wealth of pride and knowledge that gets passed on through the program.”
Blazing—who logged all 70 minutes in the cage in the 2013 championship match against the Huskies—was vital to keeping Duke’s postseason hopes alive against the Cavaliers, tallying three key saves in the second period to preserve her team’s lead at one.
“The rest of the seniors and I are just glad to be playing for another week, potentially two more games and two more opportunities to play with the people we love,” Blazing said. “We are looking for the same consistency and same energy from the team that we’ve had all the way through, but as seniors, it’s a really special opportunity for us.”
The North Carolina defense—including goalkeeper Shannon Johnson, the younger sister of Duke’s co-captain Aileen Johnson—will look for its second shutout of the tournament after defeating Michigan 1-0 Sunday to advance from the quarterfinals.
But the Blue Devils will need to start the rematch against the Tar Heels aggressively and confidently, building on last Sunday’s performance in hopes of a different outcome from the Oct. 16 matchup.
If Duke pulls off the upset against North Carolina, it will face the winner of Friday’s noon semifinal match between top-ranked Syracuse and fourth-seeded Connecticut Sunday.
“I think we are just going to come out as a new team,” sophomore Alyssa Chillano said. “That [loss to North Carolina] was earlier in the season. I think we are going to come out strong right away and show them what we’ve got.”