After reaching the Final Four at last year’s NCAA championship, the Blue Devils are looking to improve on that postseason performance behind a senior-laden defensive unit.
But it will not be easy for Duke, which is in a region with ACC standouts No. 3 North Carolina, No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 9 Louisville.
The No. 14 Blue Devils were awarded an at-large tournament berth Sunday night when the NCAA revealed this year’s tournament field of 26 teams. Duke's first round matchup will be against Loyola Friday at 5 p.m. in Chapel Hill with a second round contest against its Tobacco Road rivals looming if it advances. The Blue Devils avoided the region with two-time defending national champions and overall No. 1 seed Maryland, which is undefeated this season.
Duke enters the NCAA tournament after losing in the semifinals of the ACC tournament to the Tar Heels 7-6 in Blacksburg, Va. North Carolina went on to win the conference championship.
Although the Blue Devils (10-8) lost for the second time this season to North Carolina, its defense shined in the ACC tournament, as it has for much of the season. Led by first-team All-ACC goaltender Kelsey Duryea—who ranks third in the nation in save percentage, saving 53.4 percent of shots on goal—and a veteran back line of captains Izzy Montagne and Claire Scarrone and first-team All-ACC defender Maura Schwitter, Duke has held 12 of its 18 opponents to fewer than 10 goals this season.
Despite being matched up against some of the nation's top scoring offenses in conference play, the Blue Devils ranks 30th in the country in scoring defense, surrendering only 8.3 goals per game. Duryea registered 13 saves in Duke's most recent game against the Tar Heels, who boast the fifth best scoring offense in the nation with an average of 13.8 goals per contest.
Offensively, the Blue Devils rely on second-team All-ACC attacker Kyra Harney and Kelci Smesko to provide the brunt of the scoring, with the duo combining for 82 goals this season. But the Blue Devil offense has been much more balanced recently, with Maddie Crutchfield, Maddy Acton and Olivia Jenner all having strong performances as the season wore on.
After a quick start to the season, Jenner—the team’s draw control leader with 93 victories—cooled off as Duke trudged through the middle of its schedule. But the Annapolis, Md., native rediscovered her shooting stroke against the Tar Heels, leading the team with a hat trick. With opponents focusing on stopping Harney and Smesko, Jenner has had one-on-one opportunities after winning from the faceoff circle and will need to continue to cash in on her chances for the Blue Devils to make another deep NCAA tournament run.
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