Duke was supposed to get here.
The 2015 national runner-ups returned 10 of 11 starters before the season, and although they lost three along the way—senior Rebecca Quinn and sophomores Kayla McCoy and Taylor Racioppi—the Blue Devils had their sights on another trip to the Final Four.
Now they are just one game away, but the going gets significantly more challenging in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals after dominating play in the first three rounds in wins against Charlotte, Illinois State and Northwestern.
"All three [potential games left] are a little bit different level than what we saw the first three games of this tournament," said Duke head coach Robbie Church, making his seventh Elite Eight appearance with the Blue Devils in the past 10 years.
Third-seeded Duke will travel to Morgantown, W. Va., to face a familiar foe in top-seeded West Virginia in the Elite Eight Saturday at 3 p.m., with the Mountaineers the winners of the two teams’ 3-1 decision Sept. 9 in Durham in which the Blue Devils played one of their worst halves of soccer all year.
After besting the top-ranked defense in the country in the Wildcats last weekend, Duke now faces the second-ranked defense in the nation.
"We've got to be very compact, keep our lines close to each other," Church said. "This is a team that keeps possession well, circulates the ball, plays quick. They love to take you 1 v. 1, their backs like to get forward, they attack in numbers."
The Blue Devils’ hurdle all season has been consistently finishing in opponents’ third of the field. Duke displayed that inconsistency last weekend against Northwestern in which the Blue Devils outshot the visitors 22-2 but only had one goal to show for it.
Duke has players who can score from long distance like Ashton Miller, a junior who against Florida State in the ACC quarterfinals tallied her fourth score of her career from outside the 18-yard box.
It also has offensive threats like Ella Stevens, who tends to be in the right place more so than scoring the prettiest goals, but the freshman is currently the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals.
And then there is senior Toni Payne, who did not have her best regular season this year but has scored three times in three postseason games this NCAA tournament, using crafty footwork and long-range shooting to beat opposing defenses and goalkeepers.
"Instead of just sitting in zone two—which is the middle of the field—we're using a lot of zone three—which is like high press," said Miller, who scored Duke’s lone goal against the Mountaineers. "Our forwards are on their back line, we're all stepped up like 15 yards."
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Duke (15-4-3) will have to get by a defense that allows just 0.4 goals per game. Perhaps equally impressive, West Virginia (21-1-2) has done so despite ranking 327th out of 329 teams in the nation in saves per game, as it only allows opponents 6.5 shots per contest.
The leader of that backline is senior Kadeisha Buchanan, a member of the Canadian national team who won a bronze medal this summer in the Olympics with teammate and midfielder Ashley Lawrence and Quinn. Among other accolades, Buchanan was one of 10 finalists in 2015 for FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year.
On the offensive end, junior Michaela Abam leads West Virginia with 11 goals, and she also has eight assists that rank second on the team behind Lawrence’s 10. Abam scored twice against Duke earlier this season, and she notched the game-winning goal last weekend against Ohio State in the Round of 32, the second of the team’s three overtime wins this month.
But the final score of Duke’s first game against West Virginia does not tell the full story.
The Mountaineers’ first goal came from far outside the box when goalie EJ Proctor muffed a routine shot, and the other two goals came on controversial fouls that Church said the referee called about the next day to admit they were incorrect.
"[Because they were] playing well, and we were not playing well and those goals can be turned around, then you feel like you can play with them," Church said. "Those three goals won't happen again, they're correctable mistakes."
Duke may have the added challenge of playing in the snow depending on the forecast. In the Round of 16, West Virginia beat fourth-seeded UCLA in penalty kicks on a field blanketed in snow, a feature that changed the game’s complexion and led to the Mountaineers' only goal in regulation.
Church expects it to be too warm for snow. The current predictions, according to Weather.com’s five-day forecast, are a low of 31 degrees, a high of 44 and 20 percent chance of precipitation.
Duke boarded its charter plane Thursday evening, after what has become a regular Thanksgiving tradition. In three of the past four years, senior co-captain Christina Gibbons has hosted the team at her house in Cary, N.C., before the Elite Eight, and she did again this year.
"Everyone really loves the sweet potato casserole apparently. That's what they chanting...right at the end [of the game] as we were cooling down," Gibbons said Sunday after the Sweet 16 victory.
“Sweet potato with marshmallows on top,” Miller said of her favorite dish.
Church's response was perhaps the most fitting, given his knack for late-season runs. "I'm a big dessert person."