After falling to North Carolina in the ACC championship game and losing its 19-game winning streak in the process, Duke wanted to return to its home turf and open NCAA tournament play with a bang.
Instead, the Blue Devils struggled to find the back of the net and went into the locker room scoreless against UNC Greensboro despite a 17-1 shot advantage. Although Duke escaped the early-tournament scare with a 1-0 win, it also put its hangover from the Tobacco Road rivalry loss on full display.
Now with their first loss since Aug. 18 in the rearview mirror and their NCAA tournament nerves settled, the top-seeded Blue Devils are prepared to channel their midseason form as they ready to host Oklahoma State at Koskinen Stadium Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the Round of 32. The winner of that matchup will return to take on either No. 4 seed Texas or Clemson Sunday at 1 p.m. with a bid to the Elite Eight on the line.
“We advanced and we got through the first round,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “We’ve gotten the first-round jitters out, and now we’re ready to see some very, very strong competition.”
Duke’s surprisingly close contest against UNC Greensboro Saturday in the opening round culminated with the heroics of a familiar leader for the Blue Devils. Senior captain Imani Dorsey—who leads the team with 11 goals and seven assists on the season—scored the game’s only goal with a perfectly-placed shot to the right-side netting in the 69th minute.
Although the ACC Offensive Player of the Year has a knack for coming through for Duke during its dry spells in the attacking third, the Blue Devils (20-2-0) will need to come out with more offensive firepower Friday night if they want to survive an upset bid from a hungry Cowgirl squad. Oklahoma State (16-3-3) beat Missouri State in penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw in regulation Saturday, and will bring the momentum from that shootout with them to Durham.
“This is a good team and this is a tough second-round game,” Church said. “You have two Power Five conference regular-season champions playing each other. You usually don’t have that in the second round. I don’t think it’s fair for either one of us.”
One weapon Duke will add to its arsenal is redshirt senior Rebecca Quinn. The Toronto native—who helped lead Canada to a Bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro—missed the semifinals and finals of the ACC tournament and the opening round of the NCAA tournament to join the Canadian National Team in Vancouver, Canada, and San Jose, Calif., for back-to-back friendlies against the U.S. Women’s National Team.
Quinn’s return will be a welcome one for Church and the Blue Devils. Although redshirt senior Malinda Allen and junior Kat McDonald stepped up to fill the void during Duke’s past three games, the ACC Midfielder of the Year’s veteran presence has anchored the Blue Devils throughout their season and will help quell any of her teammates’ lingering nerves.
“It’s great to have her back,” Church said. “To have a player of her quality and talent as part of our team is really special. Everybody’s very glad to have her back and she’s glad to be back with us.”
In addition to Quinn’s return, Duke will enjoy the bonus of playing in front of a friendly crowd Friday night. The Blue Devils are undefeated at home this season, racking up 10 regular-season wins and two postseason wins at Koskinen Stadium since their home opener Aug. 20.
Should Duke defeat the Cowgirls Friday and advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the third straight time, the Blue Devils will once again host their opponents at Koskinen Stadium, an advantage Church has not overlooked.
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“It’s great to have that opportunity,” Church said. “We don’t have to miss school. We can stay in classes, we can have our normal routine and practice on our own field. But it wasn’t just given to us, we earned that right through our course of play and our body of work.”
Duke knows better than to look past any opponent—and especially one of this caliber—in a do-or-die situation like the NCAA tournament, but Church and company fully expect to spend their time Saturday scouting their next opponent.
Who that opponent might be is anyone’s guess, but after defeating the Tigers 2-1 in their only exhibition game of the season, the Blue Devils would welcome a chance to face a familiar opponent in their second game of the weekend.
“You’re always rooting for the ACC teams,” Church said. “But whoever it is, Clemson or Texas, it’s going to be a very good game. At that point, there are only 16 teams playing in the country, so you know it’s going to be special.”