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North Carolina outlasts Duke field hockey 3-2 in Blue Devils' final preseason scrimmage

<p>Heather Morris scored an early goal Saturday despite often having to play near a crowd of North Carolina defenders.</p>

Heather Morris scored an early goal Saturday despite often having to play near a crowd of North Carolina defenders.

Anytime Duke and North Carolina meet, there are usually fireworks.

Even in a preseason scrimmage, that was still the case Saturday afternoon.

The Blue Devils fell 3-2 in their second and final scrimmage to the Tar Heels at Jack Katz Stadium in a fast-paced contest featuring two of last year's top four teams. North Carolina beat Duke in the 2015 Final Four, and despite trailing for most of the first half came away victorious again in large part because of its eight second-half penalty corners. 

Inexperience showed for the Blue Devils, who are trying to replace three-time All-American goalkeeper Lauren Blazing and two other starting defenders. Duke was in position to tie or best last year's national runner-up, but the Tar Heels capitalized on a second-half penalty to break a 2-2 tie and escape with the win. 

“We were a little too soft, so we’ve got to work on that to eliminate some unforced errors—but that’s something we can do,” Blue Devil head coach Pam Bustin said. 

Coming off a 13-0 demolition of Davidson Monday morning in its first scrimmage, Duke dictated tempo to start Saturday's contest. The Blue Devils got North Carolina goalkeeper Shannon Johnson out of position, then senior forward Heather Morris got her stick on the ball in heavy traffic to give Duke an early 1-0 lead.

Blue Devil senior goalkeeper Kelsey Wagner and the Duke defense held a high-powered offense that averaged 3.8 goals per game last season—third in the nation—in check for most of the first half, but the Tar Heels equalized just before halftime. 

After squandering three penalty corners, sophomore Ashley Hoffman beat Wagner with a shot in the bottom right corner of the net.  

North Carolina's momentum continued following the break when the Tar Heels scored less than three minutes into the second half on another penalty corner.

Despite allowing two goals within five minutes of game action, the Blue Devils fought back.

Duke answered later in the period when freshman Margaux Paolino stole the ball from a North Carolina defender and found graduate student Aisling Naughton for an easy finish.

Saturday’s scrimmage marked Naughton’s first taste of ACC rivalry action. The Dublin native spent a season at Michigan before competing with Ireland’s senior national team while completing her college education.

“You always hear of the UNC-Duke rivalry, so to get to play them in a friendly match before the season starts is absolutely brilliant,” Naughton said. 

North Carolina scored the game-winner on yet another penalty corner just two minutes after Naughton’s equalizer, with junior Sam White beating Wagner off a missed shot to go up 3-2. The veteran Tar Heels started five seniors, including fifth-year senior Emma Bozek, who led the team in scoring in 2014 but missed last season because of a sequestered lung.

To finish the day, both teams participated in an overtime period with seven players per side—there are normally 11—and 15 minutes on the clock, though neither team managed a goal. Bustin said the period served to give the team's newcomers experience in the unique NCAA overtime format.

Although the Blue Devils came up short, they got to see many of their newcomers compete against a top opponent for the first time. Eighteen Duke players logged at least 20 minutes, and all except Wagner had at last eight minutes of rest on the sideline, a trend that the team's coaches hope continues in the regular season.

“The energy we brought from start to finish just reinforces our belief that our depth is going to be a strength of ours this year,” Bustin said. “The more our depth gets the opportunity to play, the stronger that depth gets.”

Duke opens the regular season at home Friday against William and Mary at 6 p.m. The Blue Devils will look to build on Saturday's effort and start the journey to their third Final Four in four years. 

“It’s just a high-energy group, and everyone’s really eager for what the season holds, and today that showed,” Naughton said. “I don’t think the result reflects the performance—it was a positive game for us.”

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