CHAPEL HILL—Duke vs. North Carolina never disappoints.
The old saying is commonly expressed with regard to the two schools’ basketball teams, but rings true for just about any sport, including field hockey.
Duke entered Sunday afternoon’s contest winless on the season but fought the two-time defending national champion Tar Heels to the very end, eventually falling 5-4 in overtime at Karen Shelton Stadium, where North Carolina remains a perfect 27-0 dating back to 2018.
While the game will still officially go down in the loss column, this kind of close battle against one of the nation's top teams is an impressive feat of development from a young squad like the Blue Devils.
“We've just been growing and growing from game to game, week to week,” Duke head coach Pam Bustin said. “This team has been exceptionally special in taking what happens in our weekend matches and bringing it to practice and really studying it, learning what we can do better, and then putting it to practice on the field.”
The final period was about as chaotic as the end of a match can get.
After junior Leah Crouse punched in a goal that cut the Blue Devils’ deficit to 4-3, North Carolina fired off six shots in the span of three minutes, with two coming off penalty corners.
But the home team was never able to convert the insurance score, with freshman goalie Piper Hampsch notching four saves during the sequence—all four of her saves on the day—to keep Duke’s hopes afloat.
At this point, the Blue Devils (0-5) were playing for their lives—and it showed. Duke kept the ball in Tar Heel territory for the majority of the final five minutes, desperate to notch the equalizer.
With 70 seconds remaining, Duke’s effort paid off, drawing an immensely-needed penalty corner. With everyone in attendance—two guests allowed per player—holding their breath, sophomore Hannah Miller glided the ball in front of the goal cage for freshman Darcy Bourne, who reared back to take the game-tying shot.
The ball was on target, but bounced off the pads of North Carolina goalie Amanda Hendry.
Nevertheless, the Blue Devils still kept up the attack as the game clock ticked below one minute. And with just 10 seconds remaining, their prayers were answered via a penalty stroke.
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And this time, senior Lexi Davidson was able to chip the shot high enough so it was just out of the reach of Hendry, knotting up the score at 4-4 and getting swarmed by her teammates.
“It's a little bit different than most of the game because it’s kind of like a set shot,” Davidson said. “I was just kind of thinking, ‘Well, this is our one chance to tie it and go into overtime.’ It was given to us on a platter, so I was just like, ‘It's time for me to do my job and score.’”
But the Blue Devils’ jubilee didn’t last long.
Just four minutes into the sudden death overtime period, Tar Heel junior Erin Matson dribbled down the left side of the pitch, standing directly adjacent to the cage, and delivered a perfect pass to an open Hannah Griggs just feet in front of the goal. Griggs easily slapped it in and pointed her finger to the air, clinching North Carolina’s 52nd win in 53 games.
Matson, the reigning National Player of the Year and dubbed the “Michael Jordan of field hockey,” was all over the pitch for North Carolina, finishing with a goal and two assists. Perhaps her most impressive play, however, wasn’t even the game-winning pass.
Late in the second period and just after Duke had taken a 2-1 lead, Matson pushed down the pitch, crossing up a Blue Devil defender in the process and sending her down into the wet grass. Following the Jordan-esque agility, Matson passed down near the cage, where North Carolina (6-1) drew a penalty corner.
After two quick passes off the corner, Matson showed off her elusiveness with the ball once again, maneuvering her way right in front of the cage for an easy score to tie up the contest 2-2.
“[Matson] is a special kid and a special player and [I’m] proud she’s an American and plays for USA because she is good,” Bustin said. “She always gives us a challenge. I really thought we did well today. She had her moments, but she’s going to.”
Duke came to play right from the opening whistle. The Blue Devils registered five shots in the opening period compared to the Tar Heels’ one, going on to take both 1-0 and 2-1 leads.
But North Carolina eventually found its groove, keeping the score close and taking the biggest lead of the match at 4-2 early in the fourth period. It was then that the chaos began.
Looking ahead, Duke will travel to Winston-Salem, N.C., to take on another in-state foe: Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons may lie just an hour away from Durham, but there’s nothing like the Tobacco Road rivalry, especially for the seniors who may have just played in their final Duke-Carolina matchup.
“It's definitely bittersweet, especially with how today's game went,” Davidson said of potentially playing in her final game against North Carolina. “It's a really weird feeling to think [playing against North Carolina] might not happen again in my playing career. I think that Duke-Carolina in pretty much every sport is unmatched.”