Although the Blue Devils had a rocky start to the season, Duke developed rapidly through nonconference play.
However, after struggling down the stretch at No. 8 Syracuse, the Blue Devils will need to double down if they want to bounce back once again in ACC play.
No. 5 Duke will travel down the road to take on North Carolina Saturday at 2 p.m. at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill. Although the Tar Heels haven't taken down a ranked opponent this season, North Carolina has always managed to bring its A game against the Blue Devils, with five of the past six meetings of the Tobacco Road rivals being decided by one goal.
"They're really good," Duke head coach John Danowski said. "They're very well-coached, they get the best players in the country year after year, they have the top recruiting classes, and they hate Duke."
In order to take down the Tar Heels, Duke will have to keep its offense chugging at a steady pace.
Against the Orange, the Blue Devils started off hot but fell off in the second half, going scoreless in the third period and tallying just two goals in the fourth. Syracuse contained Duke leading scorer Joe Robertson—limiting him to just two goals on five shots—and clogged up the Blue Devils' passing lanes to force their top threats into isolation attempts.
"We have to learn to play to win, and not hope to play not to lose," Danowski said. "Our guys mentally were just hoping to win and you can't play the game like that... It was more mental than anything else, and it's a tough thing to learn.
"We held [Syracuse] to nine goals over 60 minutes, and on most days nine goals is good enough to win it... we need to make some plays on the offensive end, and defensively we need to play for the full 60 minutes even though we didn't make the plays on offense."
Although North Carolina has had issues in finding a consistent netminder—the Tar Heels have rotated Durham native Alex Bassil and Jack Pezzulla this season—Duke (8-2, 0-1 in the ACC) will need to keep its offense in rhythm to match North Carolina's balanced attack.
The Tar Heels (6-3, 0-0) have three high-volume scorers in Timmy Kelly, Andy Matthews and William Perry that excel at finding openings and finishing at the net. Kelly and Matthews have also proven to have a knack for generating offense, combining for 25 assists this season. With three dangerous scorers to contend with at all times, the Blue Devils' defense will need to lock down on all aspects of North Carolina's attack.
Luckily for Duke, its defense is not to be taken lightly. Turner Uppgren has emerged as Duke's go-to netminder, totaling 76 saves through the season. Against Syracuse, despite the Orange constantly hounding the Blue Devils through the second half of the game, Uppgren notched 12 saves and held on just long enough to send the game into overtime. With help from an experienced backline core, Duke will no doubt make the Tar Heels work for every open look.
"We play hard every week, but in the ACC, playing hard is not enough," Danowski said. "You have to play hard and you have to play well. Playing well is being poised, being smart, playing for 60 minutes, and there are so many elements that go past playing hard."
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