Even with a 1-7 ACC record facing the sixth-ranked team in the country, it was the Blue Devils who got on the board first Thursday evening. It was the Blue Devils who kept it neck and neck with their rivals, never falling more than two goals behind. And when that final buzzer sounded, it was the Blue Devils at a one-goal deficit for the fifth time this season.
North Carolina drove the eight miles to Koskinen Stadium for Duke’s Senior Night and both schools’ regular-season finale. The game blew its blowout predictions out of the water, but the Tar Heels still emerged on top 13-12.
“We came into the game with a whole lot of questions, and our girls found a way to rally,” said head coach Kerstin Kimel after the game. “Unfortunately, we just ran out of time.”
With 5:33 to play, Marissa White scored to put North Carolina up 13-11, its largest lead of the game. Graduate attacker Maddie Jenner won the draw for the Blue Devils (7-9, 1-8 in the ACC), her seventh of the day. Duke established possession in its offensive zone, and with a minute already drained off the shot clock, senior midfielder Lexi Schmalz drew the foul inside the 8-meter.
So Schmalz did what she does best by scoring on the free position shot, her 14th of the season, to make it a one-goal game with 4:32 on the clock.
“We created a free position opportunity,” said Kimel. “The kids did a great job executing the play to give Lexi that opportunity at the 8-meter, and she finished her shot.”
The comeback, the top-10 win, the Senior Night glory — it all seemed within reach for Duke. Redshirt senior midfielder Veronica Hineman won the draw, and while Schmalz turned the ball over, a clutch save by graduate goalkeeper Sophia LeRose kept the Blue Devils in it. Then, while the Tar Heels (12-3, 7-2) set up their offense, junior midfielder Katie Keller was dealt a yellow card for contact to the head. With less than two minutes on the clock, Duke would have to finish out the game a man-down.
It almost didn’t matter. A North Carolina turnover and successful Blue Devil clear put the home team in prime position to tie the game — it just couldn’t follow through.
“We got the look we wanted, we just didn't connect,” said Kimel.
Duke would not have been in position to force overtime if not for an explosive first period. Senior attacker Caroline DeBellis found graduate attacker Eva Greco crossing in front of the goal for the first score of the game. While Olivia Dirks quickly responded for the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils closed out the quarter on a 4-0 run. Two goals from Keller, another from Greco and one from Jenner rounded out the scoring. The lopsided scoreboard, 5-1 after the period, was made possible because Duke got back to its roots: winning possessions and playing clean lacrosse. It beat North Carolina on the draw 6-1 and committed zero fouls in the opening 15 minutes.
Then, the Blue Devils started to slip. They committed nine fouls and turned the ball over nine times through the second and third periods. They were outscored, outshot and simply outplayed.
“[North Carolina] just started getting a little more aggressive going to goal,” said Kimel.
The Tar Heels got to play spoiler to Duke’s Senior Night celebration. Eleven soon-to-be graduates were celebrated postgame for their contributions to the program.
“So many of them have contributed on the field, and if they haven't been steady contributors on the field, they have certainly been incredible role players for us in practice, and leaders, role models on and off the field,” said Kimel of the Class of 2023. The last grade to be granted a fifth year due to COVID-19, at least three players will be returning as graduates next year, according to Kimel: Schmalz, defender Kay Conway and midfielder Olivia Carner.
Though it was the seniors’ day in name, it was freshman Madison Drebing who got the start between the pipes. Her presence, along with the Blue Devils’ strong defense, helped limit the Tar Heels to just two goals on 12 free position attempts, a shot they typically connect on 43.0% of the time. Senior defenders and twins Cubby and Missy Biscardi led a defensive unit that went toe to toe with the 17th-ranked scoring offense while the offensive unit, highlighted by a Jenner hat trick, put up 12 goals on the seventh-ranked scoring defense.
It was the strongest losing effort anyone has put up on North Carolina all season. Heading into an ACC tournament that the Tar Heels have won six years straight, the narrow loss might just be something for Duke to be proud of.
“I thought the girls played their rear ends off. I really did,” said Kimel.
The ninth-seeded Blue Devils will travel to No. 8-seed Louisville for the first round of the ACC tournament at 2 p.m. Sunday.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.