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MISSION COMPLETE: Duke field hockey captures first ever ACC regular-season title with 3-0 victory against North Carolina

<p>Redshirt freshman Sammi Steele recorded&nbsp;Duke's fourth shoutout of the year with a solid performance between the pipes.&nbsp;</p>

Redshirt freshman Sammi Steele recorded Duke's fourth shoutout of the year with a solid performance between the pipes. 

IIn its first matchup of the season against North Carolina, Duke entered halftime with a 1-0 lead before a three-goal barrage in the second half carried the Tar Heels to a 3-2 victory.

This time around, the Blue Devils did not just hold onto a first-half lead—they added to it.

No. 2 Duke captured its first ACC regular season title in program history with a 3-0 win against No. 4 North Carolina Saturday afternoon at Jack Katz Stadium. The Blue Devils’ victory against the Tar Heels was their first since 2013 and only their second in the last 17 contests with their Tobacco Road rival.

“It’s unbelievable,” senior forward Heather Morris said. “We knew how important this game was and we actually did consider that we’ve only beaten them twice in the last however many years, so we decided that we weren’t going to play it as a rival game. Instead, we treated it as a game where we needed a regional win, an ACC win, and a big showing overall.”

Duke (14-2, 5-1 in the ACC) used two first-half goals and a sharp performance from redshirt freshman Sammi Steele in net to come away with the win. Although North Carolina (12-4, 3-3) had eight shots on goal, the Blue Devils were more opportunistic and capitalized on their nine attempts on cage to topple the Tar Heels.

After both sides attacked passing lanes early and had trouble finding shots on target through the first 20 minutes of the game, Duke turned the momentum in its favor toward the end of the first half.

On the team’s second penalty corner of the afternoon, freshman Margaux Paolino set up junior back Alyssa Chillano for a shot from the top of the box. As the ball traveled off Chillano’s stick, a redirect from senior Robin Blazing found the back of the net and gave the Blue Devils a 1-0 lead.

But Duke was not finished yet.

With time running down in the first half and the Tar Heels applying consistent pressure on the Blue Devils’ back line, junior forward Ashley Kristen scored their second goal in the 34th minute. Sophomore Morgan Bitting received a pass at the top of the circle from the far left corner before finding Kristen on the right post for an easy tap-in and the junior’s sixth goal of the year.

After allowing North Carolina to rally in the teams’ earlier matchup this season, Duke head coach Pam Bustin’s team knew the importance of playing strong defense for a full 70 minutes against a Tar Heel team averaging close to 3.5 goals per game.

“We stayed on task defensively,” Bustin said. “If you don’t go off task too often during the game then you don’t lose control in bigger moments at the end. Because we were able to keep on task throughout the game, when those extra pushes by North Carolina happened, we were able to sustain and shut them down.”

The Blue Devil back line got a lot of help from Steele, who recorded eight saves en route to her third shutout of the year. The goalie stood tall against a relentless North Carolina attack and made critical saves throughout the second half as the Tar Heels tried to rally once again.

Only eight minutes after halftime, graduate student Aisling Naughton extended the Duke lead when she finished a shot near the net to give the Blue Devils even more breathing room. Junior Alexa Mackintire swept the ball across the cage, where it trickled to Naughton, who chipped in a shot from close range for her seventh goal of the season.

Desperate to generate offensive production against Duke’s stout defense, the Tar Heels pulled goalie Alex Halpin with 10 minutes remaining in the second half. But despite having the extra attacker and ramping up pressure on offense, Steele came up with big saves time and time again to preserve the victory.

“We knew the pressure was going to increase, so for us, we needed to sure up the inside of the field and not allow any easy balls to come through the midfield,” Bustin said. “They definitely put the pressure on our circle, but I’m really proud of how the team adjusted and stepped forward instead of stepping back.”

With the win, the Blue Devils clinched the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament in two weeks and will get a bye to the semifinals. They will wrap up the regular season next Saturday at home against Richmond.

“This game sets us up for a good seed in the conference tournament but honestly like every other week it’s just about today,” Bustin said. “The conference tournament is out there but the season’s still going on so we have to make sure we learn from today’s game, make the adjustments we need to, and get prepared for Richmond.”