CHARLESTON, S.C.—Losing to your archrival stings. Losing a 19-game winning streak to that archrival stings worse. Losing in your first trip to the ACC tournament finals since 2000 stings most of all.
The Blue Devils did all three in one afternoon.
Top-seeded Duke fell 1-0 to the No. 2 seed Tar Heels in pursuit of its first ACC championship in program history Sunday afternoon at MUSC Health Stadium. North Carolina forward Zoe Redei found the back of the net just 47 seconds into the second half to score the lone goal of the contest. Goalkeeper EJ Proctor—who was selected to the All-Tournament team along with teammates Schuyler DeBree, Kayla McCoy and Ella Stevens—made four saves in the Blue Devils' first loss since the last time they faced the Tar Heels Aug. 18—a 2-1 overtime defeat.
“This is heartbreaking, there’s no question,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “Every player out there, every coach, every staff member—we’re all heartbroken to go this long in the ACC tournament and come up short.”
After dominating the first half on the offensive end, North Carolina (14-3-2) finally broke through in the 46th minute. Tar Heel freshman Alessia Russo—who scored the lone goal in North Carolina’s semifinal victory against N.C. State and was tabbed as the ACC Championship Most Valuable Player—took a shot from the left corner of the 18-yard box, but it was deflected before it reached the net.
Redei cleaned up the 50-50 ball before dribbling through the congestion in the box. The sophomore sent a hard shot top-shelf and out of Proctor's reach.
“EJ had no chance at it,” Church said. “She was phenomenal all tournament. She kept us in it until halftime, which she did on Friday night too.”
Duke (19-2-0) turned up the intensity in its attacking third from there, desperately trying to level the score with time winding down. The Blue Devils began stringing together some passing sequences and making long runs down the flanks, but they struggled to put any promising shots.
Duke didn't have an opportunity in front of the net until Imani Dorsey's chance 10 minutes after the Tar Heels’ goal. The Elkridge, Md., native made a long run up the center of the field, bypassing multiple North Carolina defenders en route to the goal. Dorsey wound up and let a shot rip from 15 yards outside of the box, but it sailed north of the crossbar.
“I never thought we were going to lose the game,” Church said. “I thought we were going to get the tying goal. I thought we were going to push it into overtime.”
Senior and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Schuyler DeBree also lined up for two free kicks from just in front of midfield, a similar position to when she scored a SportsCenter top-10 goal to beat Boston College Oct. 19. But the Fair Haven, N.J., native lofted the ball into the 18-yard box for her teammates both times, and neither try resulted in a shot on goal.
The Blue Devils made a number of pushes in the final 10 minutes of play, the most promising of which once again came from Dorsey. Junior striker Kayla McCoy played a ball just inside the 18-yard box, where the ACC Offensive Player of the Year sent a bullet just above the crossbar.
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Freshman Karlie Paschall took a last-minute shot from deeper into the 18-yard box, but North Carolina goalkeeper Samantha Leshnak did not need to move much to make the save, shutting Duke out for the first time this season.
“Well deserved for North Carolina—they were the better team from minute one all the way through,” Church said. “We had our moments, but we didn’t step up on the stage, and it was a big moment.”
The Tar Heels came out hot in the opening half, notching two shots in the opening five minutes. In the fourth minute, North Carolina defender Julia Ashley got a head on a long ball sent into the 18-yard box. Proctor deflected the shot off the goalpost to log her first save of the afternoon.
The early onslaught was indicative of much of the opening half for the Blue Devils, which struggled to generate meaningful opportunities in their attacking third but allowed the Tar Heels to penetrate their defensive line numerous times. Proctor faced yet another one-on-one scare with 28:10 remaining in the half, when Redei sent a header sailing towards the corner of the goal. The Wilson, N.C., native made another diving save, redirecting the ball out to the sideline.
“We didn’t play very well in the first half, especially in the early part of the first half,” Church said. “You have to play a full 90 minutes, and we didn’t. It’s my job to have them prepared well enough for that, so I’ll take the blame.”
Duke started to settle in and produce some chances from there. Second-team All-ACC midfielder Taylor Racioppi controlled a long ball down the right flank and cut into the box, blasting a rocket that sailed just wide of the near post 20 seconds after Proctor’s huge save. Less than two minutes later, sophomore Ella Stevens sent a free kick into the 18-yard box, where Dorsey met the ball with her head and sent it just wide of the goal.
Sunday’s contest marked the Blue Devils’ first trip to the ACC finals in 17 years, and they will not have very long to recover from the weekend’s loss.
The NCAA Selection Show begins at 4:30 p.m. Monday, and though Duke has a solid claim to one of the four No. 1 seeds, Church and his squad will need to start shifting their attention to whichever opponent they will face in the round of 64.
“We hope that we’ll be a No. 1 seed and that our body of work will give us the opportunity to play at home all the way through to the final four,” Church said. “We have to learn from this and see what we can fix before we move on to the NCAA tournament, but we’ll be ready.”