It was the Battle of the Blue; Blue Devils versus Blue Jays. And when all was said and done, Duke proved that its blue was better.
Traveling to College Park, Md., to take on No. 25 Johns Hopkins in the first round of the NCAA tournament on a sunny Friday afternoon, No. 13 Duke looked to shake off the burden of its two most recent losses and get back to its winning ways. With help from a dominant first half and a career day for sophomore midfielder Katie Keller, the Blue Devils did just that, besting the Blue Jays 17-12 to move on to the second round.
“Once it comes to tournament time it's really do or die,” Keller said after the game. “And coming off those two tough losses against UNC and Notre Dame, I think this week at practice, we were all thinking about giving it 100%. And that's what we did today.”
By the end of the game’s 60 minutes, there had been almost too many runs and momentum swings to count, but one constant—the constant that ultimately gave Duke the win—was the influence of Keller.
With 4:23 left in the first half, Keller completed a hat trick and gave Duke its largest lead of the game at 10-5 Though there was still plenty of time left in the game, that goal was what ultimately signaled the end. A two-woman-up opportunity for Duke with under two minutes to go in the half, leading to a goal from senior attacker Maddie Jenner, was icing on the cake. Then, rapid goals from junior midfielder Olivia Carner and Jenner, the latter assisted by Keller, to end the half up seven were the cherries on top.
Despite some dangerous pushes in the second half, Johns Hopkins was never able to overcome the deficit it faced early, and that was largely due to Keller. The sophomore scored three times in the first half to help build Duke’s initial lead before assisting on two crucial goals in the second half that staved off Blue Jay comeback attempts. The Blue Devils needed someone to step up and Keller did that, finishing the day with a contest-leading and personal best of six points.
“I think that we adjusted Keller a little bit this week and kind of decided that we were going to…. Try to utilize Keller's speed and stick handling more in transition and on the offensive side of the ball…. And I think it obviously paid off today,” head coach Kerstin Kimel said.
To start the game and set the tone, the Blue Devils made quick work of the Blue Jays, working their way up the field with just a few passes after a Johns Hopkins goal was disallowed for a crease violation. A few fakes from sophomore attacker Katie DeSimone up close gave Duke the first goal of the day. Not long after, it had another, this time from Keller, with both goals assisted by graduate midfielder Abby Landry. After some passing around, Landry got her own, and Duke was up 3-0.
Then, on a free position play, graduate attacker Catriona Barry passed it to DeSimone backdoor for a goal, and the Blue Devils had begun their NCAA tournament on a 4-0 run. For a team that was 11-0 when scoring first coming into the game, that was about as good of a start as they could have asked for.
“This is still new territory for a lot of our kids.... We have to kind of coach them through these moments, so that they have the right attitude and mindset,” Kimel said. “So I think for them to have a really big day was a good step forward for us.”
However, some back and forth and a strong effort from Johns Hopkins got the Blue Jays within two early in the second quarter. Bolstered by a strong performance in goal from Sophia LeRose and some timely draw controls from Jenner, who broke the NCAA single-season draw control records Friday, the Blue Devils were able to rebuild their lead. Carner especially stepped up, scoring a goal and forcing a turnover that led to another Blue Devil goal.
“To me, Olivia Carner is one of the most complete players in the country. She does everything for us,” Kimel said. “I'm just excited that we hopefully have two more years with her to continue to develop her…. I think she has the potential to be the best midfielder in the country.”
Still, when Johns Hopkins opened the third quarter on a 3-0 run, it seemed that maybe the narrative had changed. Continuing their big days, though, Keller connected with DeSimone to regain some momentum, and shortly after, Carner raced in from the left wing and found the back of the net again. While Johns Hopkins was able to end the third quarter’s scoring with a free position goal, the Blue Devils still entered the final period with a generous five-goal lead, and they would ultimately win by that margin.
Visibly exhausted from a high-energy game, Duke at first struggled to contain the Blue Jay offense in the final frame, as the Blue Jays scored right out of the gate and levied shot after shot. However, LeRose was there to make the critical saves when Johns Hopkins started mounting more pressure.
“Studying Hopkins the past week, [we know] they're a very strong second-half team. So as a defensive unit, we talked, like we have to land the body, we have to have each other's backs out there and trust that we are going to make great defensive plays. And we did exactly that,” LeRose said.
Duke finally caught a break in the form of a woman-up opportunity, which gave DeSimone her fourth of the afternoon and broke through Johns Hopkins’ onslaught. The two teams ground it out for the rest of the quarter until the buzzer sounded after the teams swapped goals in the last two minutes of the game and the Blue Devils had moved on to the second round of the tournament.
Now, with a hard-fought tournament win under its belt, Duke knows what it needs to do to take care of business against No. 2-seed Maryland in the second round Sunday.
“The season is on the line for everybody,” Kimel said. “We have to be calm, we have to be composed, we have to play our game in those moments.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.