Wednesday afternoon was burning hot, and the intensity in Chapel Hill between Duke and Notre Dame perfectly matched the 90-degree weather.
Duke came into the ACC Championship as the No. 5 seed and faced No. 4-seed Notre Dame in what would become a very close game, though it didn’t start that way at all. The Blue Devils started off on their heels, but once again showed they are a second-half team and staged a comeback on Dorrance Field before falling 17-16 in the final minutes.
“We dug ourselves into a hole in the first half, which was tough,” head coach Kerstin Kimel said. “Offensively, we were slow to get out of the gate…. I’m disappointed that we didn’t come out and establish our own tempo early, we let [Notre Dame] do that and we got on our heels.”
Despite the first-half hole, the Blue Devils came out of halftime guns blazing, eventually tying the game 16-16 with 4:19 left to play, and largely responsible for the resurgence was junior Maddie Jenner and graduate student Gabby Rosenzweig.
Jenner got back on her draw A-game with the help of her circle and the Blue Devils controlled three draws in the first two minutes of the second half, bringing some momentum back in Duke's corner.
“In the second half, we had a lot more possessions than [Notre Dame] did and a lot of that was because they did so good on the draw,” Kimel said. “It sometimes takes [Jenner] a little bit to get to know her opponent, but usually she figures it out. She’s able to win it for herself or she’s able to put it someplace the circle girls can anticipate and get to the ball first.”
With Jenner already on fire in the circle, she brought that energy down to the cage and scored three goals in the second half to go along with Rosenzweig’s two assists, putting Duke in a position to win. But Notre Dame's Maddie Howe rifled a ball into the net with a little over two minutes left in the game, sealing the victory for the Fighting Irish despite the Blue Devils managing to outscore them in the second half.
While the ending was close, the Blue Devils started the game down 3-0 within the first five minutes due to Notre Dame’s relentless offense and its ability to win more draw controls than Jenner typically gave up in the circle. Duke seemed a bit scrambled overall, struggling with ground balls and picking up a shot clock violation on the offensive end.
Beyond the shot clock violations, the Blue Devils spent a significant portion of the first half playing man-down. Freshman Katie DeSimone picked up a yellow in transition and while the Blue Devils were trying to get organized after a shot by the Fighting Irish, they picked up a green card. Later in the first half, Duke’s Katie Cosgrove sat in the box with a yellow and redshirt sophomore Eva Greco received a green card, all while Notre Dame only received one yellow card during the entirety of the first half.
“What it did for Notre Dame was that it gave them a lot of momentum, because they were man-up so frequently in the first half,” Kimel said. “They’re a very good off-ball team and they were able to score off that a few times. I also think that any game with many cards shifts the momentum of either team.”
In addition to the number of cards Duke received, it also played three different goalies in the game. Junior Sophia LeRose started in goal like normal, but 10 minutes into the game backup goalie Chase Henriquez stepped in. But that was not the end of the goalie changes, and at the end of the first half, sophomore Stephanie Zempolich, who’s only played in three games this season, came in for the Blue Devils.
“We have pretty good depth there. Looking at our goalies, they all do things well. [LeRose] is definitely our most active goalie, she’s done a really good job. She’s third in the ACC in save percentage, so not having her in was a little bit hard,” Kimel said. “I felt like [Henriquez] was having a hard time with some of the quick releases of Notre Dame and [Zempolich] at times can be quicker. She had some nice saves in the second half in particular.”
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After such a thrilling game, all that's left for the Blue Devils to do now is wait until May 9 to likely hear their name called for one of the 13 at-large teams to get a spot in the NCAA tournament.