CHAPEL HILL—Although her team was facing one of the best goalkeepers in the nation and a defense known for switching its looks, senior attack Kelci Smesko was confident entering Friday's NCAA tournament opener.
"I think whatever they throw at us tomorrow we're ready for," Smesko told GoDuke.com before the game.
The Ridgewood, N.J., native backed up her words Friday evening.
Smesko was one of three Blue Devils to register hat tricks and led the way with three goals and three assists as Duke downed Loyola 14-8 at Fetzer Field. Although they fell behind 2-0 early in the first half, the Blue Devils scored five goals in 6:29 to build a lead they would not relinquish.
The Greyhounds got within 8-6 with 20:11 remaining in the game, but Duke went on another 5-0 spurt thanks to its ability to control the ball. The Blue Devils won 18 of 24 draw controls—including 10 of 11 in the first half—and had 10 more shots on goal than Loyola to advance to the second round and a Sunday date with No. 3 seed North Carolina.
"We knew their defense is very good and they were constantly going to be switching in and out of different defenses," Duke head coach Kerstin Kimel said. "Our kids did a really good job of adjusting and changing in and out of the offenses that we knew could give us good looks.”
With two weeks between the end of the ACC tournament and Friday's contest, Duke (11-8) started slowly in its bid to get back to the Final Four.
The Blue Devils had to adjust their matchups after freshman defender Michelle Staggers—who started 17 games this season—was hit with a shot during pregame warm-ups and had to go through the concussion protocol.
Greyhound junior attack Cami Whiteford took advantage early, beating senior goalkeeper Kelsey Duryea 2:15 into the game and adding a second tally more than four minutes later to give the Patriot League champions Loyola (14-6) early momentum.
But after scoring fewer than 10 goals in its last four contests entering the NCAA tournament, Duke's offense erupted, with second-team All-ACC attack Kyra Harney and senior midfielder Maddy Acton—who combined for seven goals—teaming with Smesko for the Blue Devils' first 5-0 run.
The Greyhounds managed to go into the locker room only down 6-4 despite playing defense for seemingly the entire half thanks to Blue Devil miscues and timely saves from Molly Wolf, who entered the game fourth in the nation—one spot behind Duryea—in save percentage. Loyola was able to disrupt Duke's offense late in the half, forcing nine Blue Devil turnovers in the period.
"We had the ball and we were getting good looks, we just weren't taking good care of the ball," Kimel said.
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Duke made the adjustments it needed in the second half, going on its second 5-0 run during a 13:11 stretch in the middle of the final period.
After Maddy Blakeman—one of three Greyhounds who scored two goals—cut the Blue Devils' lead to 8-6, freshman Olivia Jenner responded with a goal a minute later and the Duke offense sealed the win by being more efficient with its possessions than it was in the first half. The team's 14 goals were its most since March 12 against Louisville.
“Being in postseason, making those adjustments is so key,” Smesko said. “We came out today knowing that we needed to win to continue playing together for the next day. With that being the focus, we all played for each other, especially offensively."
Jenner's dominance with faceoffs was the other main story for the Blue Devils. Duke's single-season record holder in the statistic used her height advantage to win 10 draws to herself Friday, with her fellow midfielders supporting the Annapolis, Md., native when she could not control the ball directly.
"Having Maura Schwitter and Maddie Crutchfield on the circle, they're just great being able to get those ground balls if I can't win it to myself," Jenner said.
The Blue Devils will look to pull a major upset and keep their season alive Sunday at 1 p.m. in their third matchup this season against the host Tar Heels (16-2), who routed Duke 16-8 in the regular season but needed a dramatic comeback to oust the Blue Devils less than a week later in the semifinals of the ACC tournament.
Duke looked like a completely different defensive team in the rivals' second matchup in Blacksburg, Va., holding one of the nation's top-five offenses to just seven goals. The Blue Devils held a 6-4 lead before late turnovers led to a 7-6 defeat but are hoping lessons learned from the first two contests will get the team back to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.
"Third time is hopefully the charm for us," Kimel said. "If you aren't good against UNC, you're going to get crushed. You just have to be on your A-game, and if you're not, you're going to beat."