Trailing by six goals with less than nine minutes left, the Blue Devils almost pulled off the impossible.
But almost does not get your team into the NCAA tournament. And Duke knew that once the final buzzer sounded, as players slumped off the rain-soaked field defeated.
Battling treacherous conditions with two rain delays—each spanning more than an hour—the sixth-seeded Blue Devils could not finish their comeback effort Thursday night, losing 13-12 against No. 3 seed Virginia Tech at Koskinen Stadium in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. Duke had a chance to tie the game with less than a minute left, but All-ACC attack Olivia Jenner’s shot went high, and senior captain Grace Fallon’s ensuing pass went out of bounds to end the Blue Devils’ bid at landing a vital upset.
“We’re not .500, so that’s the thing that’s really, really hard. We’ve got quality wins, we just have a loss too many. That’s where this game was so, so important,” Duke head coach Kerstin Kimel said. “This was really a must-win for us, and that’s why it’s really tough for the kids right now.”
After senior attack Kyra Harney’s first of two goals with 8:48 left in the contest, the referees called for the second weather delay. With ongoing thunderstorms in the area, the two teams sat in their respective locker rooms, waiting 78 minutes to get back on the field.
Something clicked, though, for the Blue Devils (7-9) during the course of the break. Duke simply dominated in the grass-turned-mud field in the final minutes.
With Abby Landry’s goal off a feed from Fallon 45 seconds after the restart, the Blue Devils roared back. Two consecutive goals from freshman phenom Charlotte North, who broke Duke’s freshman points record, cut the deficit to three, and the pro-Blue Devil crowd exploded when North ripped a free-position goal with 1:41 left to make it 13-12.
The ensuing draw—which Jenner had dominated during the course of Duke’s scoring streak—went Virginia Tech’s way on a foul by senior midfielder Maddie Crutchfield. Luckily for Kimel’s squad, though, second-team All-ACC defender Callie Humphrey forced a turnover with a clutch interception moments later, setting the stage for the underdog’s empty final possession.
“It might have been the most fearless eight minutes that we’ve played. There were times this year where we played like that,” Kimel said. “We just played with so much courage and no fear, and we played with a lot on the line.”
Despite heading into the locker room at halftime winning by just one, Virginia Tech (13-5) capitalized on its momentum stemming from the final minutes of the opening half. With the Blue Devils winning 4-2 with less than 12 minutes left in the period, the Hokies stormed back as the weather quickly worsened, taking advantage of a sloppy Duke offense and lackadaisical defense to turn the tide in their favor despite freshman walk-on goalkeeper Chase Henriquez’s best efforts.
Henriquez, who entered the contest with just five saves to her name, turned in arguably the best performance of a Blue Devil netminder this season. Henriquez finished with 14 saves, including a few in the second half that stopped the game from becoming a complete blowout.
“It’s a lot to ask of a walk-on freshman to step into what was arguably the biggest game of the year and have the performance that she did,” Kimel said. “We felt like she deserved to start, and she did a great job.”
After halftime, Duke lost its legs. Between the first and second weather stoppages, the Blue Devils were outscored 7-2, often failing to snag groundballs after a Henriquez save. The rain became a downpour as well, as Duke had trouble getting shots on goal, despite having plenty of possessions.
“Anytime you’re in a weather situation, it’s really hard, and I don’t think we came out of the first delay really well,” Kimel said. “We got on our heels pretty quickly, and we really made stops defensively, we struggled offensively to just keep ourselves in the flow like we were in the first half.”
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, that hole was too deep to climb out of. Despite North’s game-high and ACC record-tying seven goals for a quarterfinals matchup, Duke could not put the finishing touch on the comeback, and with that goes its chances at postseason play.
The Blue Devils will finish up their season with Senior Day next week against East Carolina.
“It’s a shame because this group’s put a lot of good work into this year on and off the field,” Kimel said. “I just think we were too inconsistent to end up with a record that we needed to be eligible for NCAA play.”
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