Even after an early exit from the ACC tournament thanks to an upset loss at the hands of Louisville, the Blue Devils are still one of the teams to beat in the NCAA tournament.
And with a group brimming with talent from the front lines to the back field, Duke is in one of its best positions in program history to finally take home a national title.
The Blue Devils will enter their 16th NCAA tournament as the No. 2 overall seed against Miami (Ohio) in the Round of 16 Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at Jack Katz Stadium. If Duke wins, it will face Maryland or Wake Forest Sunday at 2 p.m. in the quarterfinals. With an attack spearheaded by junior Rose Tynan and a back line anchored by redshirt sophomore goalie Sammi Steele, the Blue Devils have all the pieces they need to make a seventh Final Four appearance.
“[The ACC] has prepared us very well,” Duke head coach Pam Bustin said. “The level of hockey this group faces day in and day out in practice or in regular ACC season competition is awesome. It's always a tight game, it's always a good game, we're playing against some of the best competition and it creates a mindset that becomes a natural expectation.”
At a glance, one of the Blue Devils' biggest strengths is their relentless offense. Duke (16-3) averages 2.8 goals per game while limiting opponents to just 1.2. Tynan has 15 goals to her name, and the senior duo of Alyssa Chillano and Ashley Kristen have each scored eight times. In fact, during Duke’s 2-0 shutout of the RedHawks (12-8) earlier this season, Kristen hounded Miami goalkeeper Maddie Passarella with eight shots and a goal.
In their last matchup, the Blue Devils’ offense was so prolific against the RedHawks that Duke outshot Miami 28-5. The RedHawks’ only saving grace for the afternoon was Passarella, who totaled 14 saves. She will need to stay razor sharp again to give her team a chance against the Blue Devils’ offensive deluge.
“One of the things we try to do is get our defenders and midfielders in on the attack, so often it's our midfielders on the far post trying to get the tip,” Tynan said. “When [the backfield] is pushing you forward, obviously your offense is going to be striving and working a lot better. We just need to get the ball in the net now.”
Although Duke has the record and the personnel to suggest a rout against the RedHawks, the Blue Devils will need to finish their chances better than they did a week ago. In Louisville’s ACC semifinal upset, the Blue Devils outshot the Cardinals 31-8 but only mustered two goals. If Duke runs into a powerhouse goalie again, a failure to convert could mean that even a team struggling to control the ball may be able to steal a win off the normally dominant Blue Devils.
“[The match against Louisville] was a tough loss because we lost, but we came away from that game feeling good about the level of intensity we kept for 100 minutes,” Bustin said. “We felt very good and very prideful in the type of hockey and style of hockey that we played, and our mindset was to play hockey through a lot of adversity—and they kept at it. Credit to our opponent for keeping the ball out of the cage and putting it in when they had the opportunity, and that's what it came down to.”
On defense, Duke has Steele as a solid goalkeeper to maintain the back line and turn away most upset bids.
The Eagleville, Pa., native sits at a .750 save percentage, contributing heavily to Duke’s seven shutouts this season. Although Miami’s Paula Portugal is known for slicing through tough defenses—totaling 20 goals through the season—Steele has seniors Stephanie Pezzuti, Sarah Furey and Chillano to back her up—a tough trio for even top teams in the nation to break through.
Arguably the greatest advantage the Blue Devils will have on much of their competition throughout in the tournament is their experience against ranked opponents. Playing in a conference containing seven top-25 teams on top of a grueling nonconference schedule, Duke has 12 wins against some of the NCAA’s best.
However, the Blue Devils have yet to face undefeateed and top-seeded Connecticut—and would not meet the Huskies until the national championship.
“[Playing at home] is what you work really hard for,” Bustin said. “You want to work hard throughout the season to give yourself your best opportunities, and we love playing at home. We finished the season with a couple of road games, so it's nice to have that break of travel and finish out the year with the NCAA on our home field.”
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