With 31.3 seconds on the clock, Duke had the opportunity of a lifetime. Down by a goal to their archrival, No. 6 North Carolina, head coach Kerstin Kimel called a timeout in hopes of cashing in on a last-ditch effort to even things up and force overtime play. However, with the clock swiftly winding down, the Blue Devils could not get a shot off in time, their chances of pulling off an underdog victory dashed.
“Unfortunately, we just ran out of time,” said Kimel. “The girls did a good job of trying to execute as best they could.”
While the 13-12 defeat at the hands of the Tar Heels is heartbreaking in its own way, this pattern of almosts, maybes and could-have-beens has plagued Duke (7-9, 1-8 in the ACC) all season long. In six games this year and five ACC contests, the Blue Devils have lost by just one goal. One shot, one draw control or one turnover would have been the difference-maker to lift Duke to glory, but it never materialized.
For a team that went 16-4 last year while standing toe-to-toe with the likes of perennial lacrosse powerhouses Syracuse and Boston College, the 7-9 record the Blue Devils achieved over the course of the 2023 campaign pales in comparison. With so many crucial returners, this season was slated for Duke to contend for a national title. So, what brought the Blue Devils down? Inconsistency.
If lacrosse games were decided on first quarters alone, then everything would be coming up Duke. In 13 of their 16 contests on the year, the Blue Devils have won or tied with their opponents in the first 15 minutes of play. Looking like the team the Duke faithful remembers from last year, they execute with precision on offense with showstopping goals and miraculous assists most lacrosse players can only dream of. Defensively, they suffocate opposing teams and stifle their opportunities. The first quarter against North Carolina was no different.
“I think we won the draw six to one,” said Kimel. “So we had the ball more than they did … they just started getting a little more aggressive.”
Even going into the locker room at halftime, it would seem to all the world as if a Blue Devil victory was on the horizon. Then, things start to unravel.
With a dropped pass here and a missed shot there, Duke’s mistakes start to pile up as its offense becomes static, and it starts to commit unforced turnovers. Struggling to maintain an offensive rhythm, opponents like the Tar Heels pounce on the defensive end as they grow into the game. While the Blue Devils jumped out to an early 5-1 lead against North Carolina, the Tar Heels’ talented offensive unit cannot be held at bay for long. When Duke couldn’t respond with more goals of its own, it saw its lead dwindle and dwindle into a back-and-forth contest. At that point, getting over the final hurdle to victory is exceedingly difficult for this year’s squad as they struggle to execute down the stretch.
“We’ve certainly been in [these situations before],” said Kimel. “We got the look we wanted, we just didn’t connect.”
Inconsistency may have played the titular role in the Blue Devils’ regular season, but the North Carolina contest did prove that the Duke of old is capable of making an appearance in ACC tournament play. Keeping the reigning national champions honest down to the wire is no small feat as the Blue Devils held the Tar Heels below their average goals per game of 14.7 while forcing more turnovers and errors on clears.
Duke has struggled to recreate the fairytale magic of its 2022 season, but if anything, its recent contest against North Carolina proved that the Blue Devils are not done yet. They are capable of hanging with the best teams in the country — if they show up to play. Sunday’s matchup against Louisville in the play-in round of the conference tournament will be the real test of this Duke team. Can they put on a performance like they did against the Tar Heels, or will the 2023 season fade quickly into obscurity?
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Mackenzie Sheehy is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.