The Blue Devils saved the best for last.
Friday evening’s bout between Tobacco Road rivals Duke and North Carolina represents the ACC regular-season finale for both teams. A top-five showdown, the No. 5 Tar Heels are Duke’s highest-ranked opponent of the season, a slight bump from when the Blue Devils capably dispatched then-No. 6 Maryland 2-0 at the start of the season.
When second-ranked Duke welcomes North Carolina to Jack Katz Stadium for a 6 p.m. tilt, both teams will be walking on familiar turf—the Tar Heels have practiced in Durham for the duration of the season while their fields undergo renovation. Alhough there may be a slight decrease in home-field advantage for the Blue Devils, senior captain Alyssa Chillano took a pragmatic stance on the matter, preferring to focus her energy on the Tar Heel team itself.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” Chillano said. “We worked it out well. I think the coaches handled it very professionally. We never really see each other.”
After securing the team’s first ACC regular-season championship last year with a win against North Carolina at home, Duke eventually fell to the Tar Heels 3-2 in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, leaving its mission somewhat unaccomplished.
Although a regular season championship is off the table for both the Blue Devils (12-2, 3-2 in the ACC) and North Carolina, a win for Duke puts it in position to wrap up the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, provided Virginia triumphs against Louisville.
The Tar Heels (12-3, 3-2) enter Friday’s contest coming off a 1-1 weekend in which they dropped a close 3-2 contest to Louisville before rebounding with a dominant 4-1 win against Virginia Commonwealth.
After an uncharacteristically slow 2-3 start, North Carolina has rounded into form, winning eight straight before last weekend’s setback to the Cardinals. Within that streak was a 4-0 victory over Virginia in Charlottesville Oct. 4, by far the No. 3 Cavaliers’ worst loss of the season and the only time an opponent has held their extremely potent offense scoreless. Duke’s worst loss of the season came in a 4-1 defeat to Virginia in September.
The Tar Heels have an incredibly high-powered offense of their own, led by junior midfielder Ashley Hoffman and senior forward Gab Major, the team’s leading scorers with nine and six goals, respectively. North Carolina averages 3.3 goals per game, ninth in the nation and second only to Virginia in the ACC —the nation’s highest-scoring team.
At the same time, the Tar Heels rank seventh in the country in terms of scoring margin and have posted five shutouts. With strength from the front to the back, North Carolina’s team mirrors Duke’s closely. The Blue Devils, with redshirt sophomore Sammi Steele in net, have allowed only 14 goals all season and have six shutouts in only 14 games.
Penalty corner defense will be paramount for Duke against North Carolina, which averages eight per contest.
The margin for error in recent history has proved extremely thin—three of the last five games have been decided by one goal—making it even more important for the Blue Devils to bunker down on defense while at the same time capitalizing on their set-piece opportunities offensively.
Following Friday evening’s contest, Duke travels to Lynchburg, Va., to take on Liberty Sunday afternoon. The Blue Devils are undefeated against nonconference opponents this season and 3-0 against Liberty overall.
Despite being heavily favored, it will be important for Duke to play well Sunday and next week against Appalachian State in its final game of season. With the ACC and NCAA tournaments rapidly approaching, the Blue Devils will be looking to carry some momentum into each for a deeper postseason run.
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