The Blue Devils hadn’t beaten North Carolina since 2014. They had lost 12 straight games to the Tar Heels coming into their Thursday night showdown in Chapel Hill, but this year was supposed to be different.
Duke was riding a nine-game winning streak and had taken down the defending national champions in its last game out. The team was having its best regular season since 2006.
But in the final game of the regular season, No. 1 North Carolina showed that it still has Duke’s number, handling the fifth-ranked Blue Devils 18-4, securing the ACC regular-season title and the top seed in the upcoming conference tournament in the process.
“We didn't execute anywhere close to what I think we are capable of,” said Duke head coach Kerstin Kimel. “I think we came into the game a little unfocused. This is the time of the year where you have to really work hard to keep your eye on the ball. They threw some things at us that we weren't necessarily prepared for, and that's on us coaches to anticipate and be ready to adjust quicker. I told the girls after [the] Syracuse [loss], it’s only a loss if we don't learn. I think we'll learn a lot from this.”
Prior to the start of the match, Duke fans may already have noticed a difference on the field with a different Blue Devil starting between the pipes. Duke’s usual starting goalie, senior Sophia LeRose, was on the sideline in street clothes, and freshman goalie Kennedy Everson got the starting nod—just the second start of her career and her first in an ACC contest.
The Tar Heels (15-0, 8-0 in the ACC) got off to a quick start, scoring two goals in rapid succession, despite the Blue Devils (15-2, 6-2) winning the first two draw controls. Duke continued to win the draw and, this time, graduate student and Tewaaraton Award nominee Catriona Barry found the back of the net. Thirty-nine seconds later, the Blue Devils found the space between the pipes again, this time on an unassisted goal by sophomore midfielder Katie Keller. After a less-than-ideal start from Duke, the game was beginning to look like the top-five matchup fans were expecting.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devil fans who had made the drive down Tobacco Road, that feeling wouldn’t last.
Trailing just 3-2 at the start of the second period and dominating the draw control to that point, Duke had reason to be confident—it had also trailed 3-2 in its win against Virginia Tech.
But the Blue Devils picked up their first yellow card of the quarter less than a minute into the period and would go on to pick up two more before the 15 minutes were up. In those 15 minutes, the Tar Heels began to flex their offensive muscle, rattling off a 6-0 run as the Blue Devils picked up foul after foul, totaling 13 in the quarter. By the time the halftime buzzer finally sounded, the Blue Devils were trailing by seven, down 9-2 for their largest deficit of the season. Their scoreless quarter was just their second all season, their first being a scoreless fourth in a midseason win against Louisville. Even so, it wouldn’t be their only scoreless quarter of the evening.
“I think we got frazzled with the calls, I think we got frazzled with the cards,” Kimel said. “We haven't been in a position where we've been down and had a team kind of come after us, come after us, come after us. And I think that we just didn't react very well.”
Just five minutes into the second half, the Tar Heels had already found the back of the net three more times, putting the Blue Devils down 10 and on the wrong side of the running clock. Graduate student Chase Henriquez came in to replace Everson, but it wasn’t enough to make a difference—North Carolina was just playing at a different speed.
With five minutes left in the game, the Blue Devils found themselves down 18-2, but they had a little life left in them to ensure that they wouldn’t lose by 16 goals, which would have matched the largest defeat in program history. A goal from redshirt junior Veronica Hineman and a score from sophomore Katie DeSimone with less than 30 seconds remaining framed the game in a cruel symmetry—the Blue Devils had only scored in the first and last five minutes of the match.
Looking at this game in isolation, there are few positives for the Blue Devils to take away. Duke’s four goals scored were its fewest in a game since a 2013 loss to Northwestern. The 14-goal margin was the program's largest in a losing effort since 2019, which also came in a loss to North Carolina.
However, despite the lopsided box score, Duke fans shouldn’t give up hope as the Blue Devils head into the postseason. This team is capable of more than it showed Thursday in Chapel Hill and this season remains one of the best regular seasons in program history. As Duke awaits the upcoming ACC tournament, one thing is sure: The Blue Devils that begin their championship pursuit this coming week in South Bend, Ind., will not be the same ones that left Dorrance Field Thursday.
“I think we'll learn from this,” Kimel said. “And I told the girls, I said, ‘If we are half the team I think we are, this will be the best thing to happen to us all season.’”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.