There may not have been any sun shining Friday night for the Blue Devils as they battled the Tar Heels through the pouring rain and biting cold. However, it was the essence of the team itself that provided a spot of light, even with the loss.
No. 8 Duke fell to No. 1 North Carolina 13-6 in Chapel Hill, weathering some of the worst conditions either team has had to face so far this year. Duke-UNC may be the premier rivalry in all of sports, but Mother Nature doesn’t play favorites, and this match got the short end of the stick after days of great weather in the Triangle Area. And for much of the second half of this match, the Blue Devils looked as flat as the day was dreary.
However, when the final buzzer sounded, that wasn’t the taste that was left in anyone’s mouth.
With five minutes remaining, the outcome and story of the contest seemed to be set in stone. Duke (3-1, 1-1 in the ACC) hadn’t scored in 37 minutes of game time, with North Carolina (4-0, 1-0 in the ACC) rattling off nine straight goals of its own during that stretch en route to a 13-3 lead. The Tar Heels were on their way to their 11th straight win against the Blue Devils, and Duke would have to wait until the end of the season to get another chance to beat its archrivals for the first time since 2014.
Ultimately, all those tangibles were true. But sometimes it’s the intangibles that make all the difference.
The Blue Devils could’ve given up, or put in less effort, and few fans would have noticed or been able to blame them—playing the top team in the country at their stadium amidst a downpour during a pandemic is a rare occurrence. But that’s not the type of team Duke is. So, the Blue Devils went back to work.
“We felt like it was a game we could win,” Duke head coach Kerstin Kimel said. “And that was the attitude and mindset that we went into it with. Our crew competed really hard. I was really proud of the actual physical effort competition that we made. Again, it was a tough night to play. And that will never be an excuse. And I know our kids were cold, and I know our kids were wet. And they just didn't care. In any timeout situation we had in that second half, it was always like, ‘We've got this’. And I feel like we played that way until the last whistle.”
It was senior Katie Cronin that made the first dent. After a foul on North Carolina, she lined up on the eight-meter arc for a free position shot, putting it past Tar Heel goalie Taylor Moreno for Duke’s first goal of the second half to make it 13-4.
Thirty-four seconds later, Pennsylvania transfer Gabby Rosenzweig added on an unassisted goal of her own.
And 34 seconds later, after yet another draw control by junior Maddie Jenner, Rosenzweig put another ball past Moreno and into the cage, cutting North Carolina’s lead to 13-6. It was at this moment that the limited fans at Dorrance Field and everyone else watching on TV knew that this Duke team isn't one to just give in.
“I think there's a lot to be learned from the game,” Kimel said. “We [had] an opportunity to play a great team and learn something about ourselves and make ourselves better. I thought we competed really hard. I thought we played hard. I think we could have played better. And certainly we're walking away from the game feeling like we can hang [with UNC], on a day that we execute better that we can play with the top team in the country. And we'll have an opportunity to see them again in April, which I think we will be even more prepared for. Moving further into our ACC season, that game last night is going to help us get better quicker.”
There are other things this team will take from this match going forward, the bad with the good.
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In the first half, after giving up two early goals to North Carolina, Duke had seemed to find a groove, going back and forth and finding itself down just a goal at 4-3. But the Blue Devils simply couldn’t muster that tying score to gain momentum.
In the second half, during the Tar Heels’ streak of nine unanswered goals, the Blue Devil defense that had been so dominant against Virginia Tech the previous weekend now seemed unable to find a stop. Time and time again, North Carolina found the player cutting down the center of the arc, putting all of the defensive pressure on Duke goalkeeper Sophia LeRose. She may be coming off a great performance against the Hokies, but even she could use a little help.
However, recognizing where you can improve and then working toward it is part of who this team is. Not every game is sunshine and roses—this one was neither of those things, marked by a slippery, soggy field and six penalty cards between the two teams, including five yellows.
“Our mindset for tomorrow is that we want to go in and play the best game that we can possibly play no matter who it is,” Kimel said. “If you went in our locker room, you would see that we have a game day countdown clock, and it doesn't have an opponent's name on it. It just has a number. So [Sunday], team number five, just happens to be against East Carolina, and our goal is a business trip. We want to go down, we want to take care of business, play the kind of game that we're capable of playing, get back on track, so that we can head into next week with another win under our belts, and ready to play a top Syracuse team at the end of next week.”