CHARLESTON, S.C.—A program-record 19-game winning streak, a perfect ACC slate and an ACC regular-season championship are not enough to satisfy this year’s top-seeded Blue Devils.
But they came one step closer to reaching their goal—and making even more history—Friday night in the ACC tournament semifinals.
The Blue Devils beat fourth-seeded Virginia 1-0 in their second head-to-head matchup in as many weeks Friday night at MUSC Health Stadium. Sophomore striker Ella Stevens provided the heroics on the attacking end for Duke, scoring from the six-yard box 1:27 into the second half.
With the win, the Blue Devils will move on to the ACC championship for the first time since 2000 with a chance to take home their first conference title in program history. The only team standing in their way is No. 2 seed North Carolina—which dealt Duke its sole loss of the season Aug. 18—setting the stage for a grudge match under the brightest lights either side has seen this season.
“This team is very motivated by winning, so we’re not just happy to be in the finals, we want to win the finals,” head coach Robbie Church said. “Whoever it’s against, it doesn’t matter who it is, we want to go home with hardware on the bus.”
Stevens’ goal came on the back of a stellar sequence from a Blue Devil squad that struggled to generate offense in the 45 minutes prior. ACC Defensive Player of the Year Schuyler DeBree sent a long ball soaring into the 18-yard box, which junior defender Chelsea Burns redirected across the front of the goal with her head for a diving Stevens to punch into the left side netting.
The score marked Stevens’ fourth goal of the season and her second point of the tournament. The Grayson, Ga., native assisted on the first goal of the tournament for Duke (19-1-0) in its quarterfinal contest against Boston College, serving a corner kick into the six-yard box for Burns to head into the back of the net.
“I try to give my best every game. Whether that means I give an assist or a goal or I just work my butt off defensively, that’s what I’m trying to do,” Stevens said. “We know we’re going to put it away somehow.”
But Duke’s offensive breakthrough did not come without a few scares on the other end. Virginia (11-5-4) dominated offensively in the first half, posting seven shots—four of which were placed on goal—and five corner kicks to the Blue Devils’ zero shots and lone corner kick in the same period. Senior captain and three-year starting netminder EJ Proctor had what was easily her most impressive showing in Friday night’s contest.
The Wilson, N.C., native notched four saves in the half, a number of which required full-body layouts and skillful punch-outs to keep the Cavaliers from forging ahead. Although the second half was much quieter for the Blue Devil defense, Virginia’s last-minute onslaught gave Proctor a chance to prove why she was a first-team All-ACC selection. She leaped and reached behind her to scoop a Virginia shot out of the air before pouncing to the other side of the goal to make a grab mere seconds later.
“She’s able to make those saves. Our team is very, very confident that if we have a break down, they still have to go through her," Church said. "She thrives in these games—the bigger the games, the better she is.”
Proctor—who owns the second- and third-best season goals against averages in Duke history—will need to bring that intensity and level of play to the Blue Devils’ championship matchup against North Carolina Sunday afternoon. In addition to the typical animosity that accompanies this fierce rivalry, Duke will look to avenge its lone loss of an otherwise flawless year—a 2-1 overtime loss to the Tar Heels in its first contest of the season.
After taking the ACC regular-season crown back to Durham for the first time since 2011, the Blue Devils are laser-focused on winning the ACC tournament no matter which team stands in their way.
“People talk about records and finals and championships, but we have one goal in mind right now,” Stevens said. “That’s just to win Sunday, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
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