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Duke women’s lacrosse impresses in ACC tournament

<p>Olivia Jenner's six goals propelled Duke to a victory against Notre Dame.</p>

Olivia Jenner's six goals propelled Duke to a victory against Notre Dame.

While the weekend didn’t have a Cinderella ending for Duke, the Blue Devils finally got their signature win.

After losing all seven of their previous matchups with top 10 teams this season—three of them by one point—Duke finally flipped the script.

With lopsided losses to Notre Dame and North Carolina capping the Blue Devils' regular season action, No. 18 Duke headed into postseason play in a must-win scenario if they wished to keep their NCAA tournament aspirations alive.  

Having looked dead in the water from the get-go in their regular season matchup with the Fighting Irish, the Blue Devils looked like a different team in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament Wednesday, coming out on top against No. 6 Notre Dame 14-13 in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Duke nearly avenged its regular season loss against No. 3 North Carolina as well, but fell to the Tar Heels 16-11 in Saturday's semifinal.

“I’m so happy for our team,” Blue Devils head coach Kerstin Kimel said following the win against the Fighting Irish. “We’ve had a lot of tough one-goal losses this season, [and] this is a game we really needed to win on a lot of levels. We’ve put together a couple of really good weeks of practice and preparation and our performances [haven’t] reflected that until tonight, which is awesome. Our kids saved their best game of the season for tonight.”

In Duke’s first matchup against Notre Dame, a 15-7 loss, the Blue Devils lost the draw for just the second time all season. The Fighting Irish dominated the draw that day, winning it 16-7. This time around, Duke (10-8) was not going to let that happen again. While Notre Dame ended up narrowly winning the draw in the second contest, 15-14, the Blue Devils won it 8-6 in the first half, allowing them to take a 7-6 halftime lead.

The second half was just as close, and the two teams tied the score on four different occasions. In the end, however, the duo of senior Olivia Jenner and sophomore Charlotte North proved to be too much for the Fighting Irish (13-4) to handle. They combined for 10 goals on the day, including Duke’s last three goals. Jenner buried what proved to be the game-winning goal with just under five minutes left in the match, putting her at six goals on the day and matching her career-high. North’s four goals put her at 72 for the season, breaking the Blue Devils' season scoring record. 

“They executed,” Kimel said. “We spent the week working on some specific looks for the both of them and they did an awesome job of not forcing things and really reading what the defense was giving them.”

After beating Notre Dame, Duke was set for a rematch with North Carolina in the semifinal. But, in between the two matchups, Jenner’s fantastic week continued. 

After being named to the All-ACC first team earlier in the week, on Thursday Jenner was named one of 25 nominees for the 2019 Tewaaraton Award, which recognizes the top women’s college lacrosse player in the United States. The same evening, Jenner was selected 8th in the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League's Spring Draft by the New England Command, becoming the fourth Blue Devil to be drafted into the league.

However, she wasn’t going to let her personal accolades go to her head knowing that an important contest loomed on Friday night, although she got a little more time to celebrate her accomplishments as the game was moved to noon Saturday after a weather delay. 

Duke looked anything but delayed to start the match against North Carolina (14-3), taking a 7-6 lead into halftime on the strength of strong performances from Jenner and junior goalkeeper Gabbe Cadoux. Jenner put four goals past one of the top goalkeepers in the nation in the first half and Cadoux posted an impressive seven saves. The Devils also controlled the draw in the first, 9-5, and easily won the draw for the game by a tally of 20-9. 

“First and foremost, we did an awesome job controlling the draw which gave us opportunities on offense,” said Kimel. “We did a really good job executing. And our defensive game plan was to have the other [Tar Heels], not Ortega and Hoeg, hurt us, and I think that went well for us in the first half of the game.”

However, the Blue Devils were only able to keep North Carolina’s dynamic offense in check for so long. Despite Duke easily winning the draw, the Tar Heels were the ones consistently getting the balls through the posts. At one point, North Carolina scored four in a row to go up 11-8. Sophomore midfielder Katie Cronin tried to stop the bleeding for the Blue Devils with a goal of her own, part of her second career hat trick, but it wasn’t enough. The Tar Heels rattled off three more consecutive goals to put them up five and never looked back, eventually winning 16-11 for their tenth win in a row against Duke.

Neither Jenner nor North scored in the second half for the Blue Devils, but North’s two goals and assist from the first half brought her season points total to 96, matching the program’s season record. 

“We played our game for about 75 percent of the game,” said Kimel. “The last 15 minutes we let the momentum get away from us and [we] didn't stick to our game plan. The biggest thing was we didn't finish our shots. We had opportunities because we did such a good job on the draw today but we did not finish our shots. And so unfortunately that gave [North Carolina] opportunities to get their offense going, which they took advantage of.”

Duke has one final regular season matchup set for May 5 against VCU, which will be senior day at Koskinen Stadium. After that, the Blue Devils will await their NCAA tournament fate, set to be announced later that day at 9 p.m. If they make the field, it will mark their first appearance since 2016.