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Duke women's soccer wraps up perfect ACC slate behind McDonald's late goal

<p>Junior Kat McDonald drilled a shot off the goalkeeper’s arms and into the back of the net in the 87th minute.</p>

Junior Kat McDonald drilled a shot off the goalkeeper’s arms and into the back of the net in the 87th minute.

Nobody’s perfect, but No. 2 Duke is really, really close.

The Blue Devils have not lost a game since Aug. 18. They have won 17 consecutive contests and finished their regular-season ACC slate without a blemish to shatter previous program records in both categories. They have scored 41 goals to their opponents’ eight to earn 12 shutouts in an 18-game season, and have rightfully been considered one of the top teams in the nation heading into the postseason. 

Winning its third ACC regular-season championship and first since 2011 with a 1-0 victory against No. 10 Virginia at Klöckner Stadium Thursday night was certainly a feat in and of itself, but this accomplished Duke squad has its focus on chasing perfection and collecting some more hardware along the way.

“Obviously winning the ACC regular-season championship was incredible, but that was just step one,” said junior Kat McDonald, who scored the game-winner in Thursday’s contest. “Our next step is to win the ACC tournament, and obviously we want to follow it with the national championship.”

McDonald broke through with just 3:41 remaining on the clock to put the Blue Devils in the lead. After Kayla McCoy slashed down the left flank and cut into the 18-yard box, she sent a hard ball across the front of the goal and into the six-yard box, where a sprinting McDonald fell to her knees to punch the ball past Cavalier netminder Laurel Ivory and into the goal.

“Kat scored a big goal at West Virginia and scored another big goal here, and you’re just so happy for a player like that, because you know how hard she’s worked,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “She’s not the most athletic player we have, but she’s probably the one with the most heart. She has worked her butt off and we’re really lucky to have her with our program.”

Although the Blue Devils (17-1-0, 10-0-0 in the ACC) ultimately did not need Thursday night’s win to clinch the ACC regular-season crown, their pursuit of perfection in conference play did not come without a fight from Virginia. The Cavaliers (10-4-4, 5-2-3) came out in full force, holding Duke without a shot on goal in the opening period and forcing the Blue Devil defense into some tough positions before heading to the locker room scoreless at the half.

Freshman Taryn Torres nearly put Virginia on the board in the 34th minute, blasting a shot from just outside the six-yard box off the right goalpost, where it spun across the front of the net before it was cleared from the box. 

But soon after that scare, the Blue Devils wrapped up the ACC regular-season title—just not of their own doing. Notre Dame goalkeeper Lexi Nicholas made a remarkable leaping save on a North Carolina free kick in the 110th minute of overtime to finish in a draw, officially putting the Tar Heels, who sat just behind Duke in the ACC, at least one point behind the Blue Devils in the final standings.

“It feels surreal to have won the regular season, especially the way we’ve done it,” Church said. “We’ve gone 10-0 in the league with 17 straight wins. In the end, we had three straight road games with Virginia—one of the best programs in the country—to finish it off. That’s unbelievable. How it’s all unfolded is really unbelievable.”

Both teams brought a different level of firepower to open the second half. The Cavaliers had a promising opportunity on a corner kick in the 60th minute, but junior Montana Sutton’s header flew just wide of the goal. After twenty minutes of deadlock, McCoy—who leads the team with 10 goals on the season—had a chance of her own on the other end. The Lincolnwood, Ill., native found herself one-on-one with Ivory, but could not slip her shot into the back of the net. 

But when McCoy sliced into the box again, she was able to find her teammate for the finish.

Church and his squad will have little time to celebrate their regular-season accomplishments, as they will host eighth-seeded Boston College in the ACC tournament quarterfinals Sunday afternoon. Duke will look to carry its regular-season success into the postseason after becoming the first team since Virginia in 2013 to complete the ACC gauntlet unscathed. 

With their fifth game in two weeks and a mountain of pressure on the horizon, the Blue Devils will need to recover quickly and focus on the next task ahead of them. Some coaches might be concerned about the quick turnaround, but Church has no reason to doubt his team’s ability to rise to the challenge given its accomplishments thus far.

“I know this team, and when it’s time to play and it’s time to compete, they’ll be there,” Church said. “They’ll be ready to play. It’s an incredible group that just has a great desire to be a great team.” 

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