CHAPEL HILL—With their Cinderella season hanging in the balance, the Blue Devils attempted to walk the line between desperation and composure, laying everything on the line as time wound down. But when the clock struck midnight, the magic of their season ran out.
Outshot 20 to four, No. 3-seed Duke fell to the second-seeded Wildcats 2-1 in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. Corners were the name of the game in this defensive battle as Northwestern was awarded 10 offensive corners to the Blue Devils' one. Even with the loss, Duke's 18-5 record marks a massive jump from last year's 7-11 slate.
“I couldn’t ask for more as a coach or as a program from these student athletes and the women that represented Duke this year…” head coach Pam Bustin said after the game. “I’m so pleased and proud that they were able to represent and have this opportunity today.”
After a collision between sophomore midfielder Macy Szukics and Olivia Bent-Cole around midfield, resulting in Szukics losing both her footing and her stick, the Blue Devils were down a defender as Northwestern stormed towards the Duke goal. The quick change of pace and lack of call on the contact put Duke on its back foot as a pass slipped through to Regan Cornelius, who shot it past senior goalie Piper Hampsch. The Wildcats took the 2-1 with just over 11 minutes left in the game and never gave it up.
Headed into the most important quarter of its season, Duke was dead even with Northwestern — in score, at least. That remained tied 1-1, despite the Blue Devils being outshot 15-3 through 45 minutes of play.
Duke had come into the second half firing on all cylinders as it controlled much of the offensive play in the opening minutes. Just 2:43 into the third quarter, a reverse shot from the dotted circle by junior back Megan Maransky somehow found its way to Miller, who just got her stick on it, sending the ball flying into the top left corner of the goal, tying the game 1-1. Despite a lopsided stat sheet, the Blue Devils were right there.
Northwestern came into the second quarter offensively charged as it recorded a shot only 1:22 into the frame and received its third offensive penalty corner of the game less than three minutes into the second period. While its first two penalty corners proved fruitless, the third time was the charm as the shot from Tromp barely slipped past Hampsch’s glove, putting the Wildcats up by one early in the second.
Opening the fourth quarter, Duke had a Northwestern defender cornered in Bustin's squad's offensive end before getting a quick steal and sending the ball into the circle. Graduate forward Hannah Miller found the ball on her stick around the stroke line before firing a shot into heavy play in front of the net. The initial call was a Wildcat foot foul and Blue Devil offensive corner. After review, that call was overturned, and Northwestern took over at the top of the circle.
After a collision in the circle between sophomore forward Alaina McVeigh and a few Northwestern defenders , Duke was awarded the first penalty corner of the game with 4:24 to play in the first quarter. The insert from Miller led to the McVeigh shot, which was promptly blocked. The Blue Devils failed to gain a second-chance opportunity. Along with the defensive stop, Northwestern soon after gained a one-man advantage on a Miller green card, though it couldn’t capitalize. That offensive penalty corner would be Duke's only of the game.
The Blue Devils defensive fouls, however, continued. With only two minutes left in the first quarter, the Wildcats received their first penalty corner of the game — and the birthday girl, Hampsch, was challenged for the first time. Even with a stellar glove save by Hampsch, Northwestern was immediately awarded another corner. Lauren Wadas’ shot once again made it through to Hampsch, which she saved, and the rebound opportunity from Peyton Halsey went wide. Both sides ended the first corner scoreless.
The Blue Devils couldn’t stop their fouls in the defensive zone as Northwestern got another penalty corner with 8:22 minutes left, but the shot was saved by Hampsch. Despite the stop, the Wildcats once again got back-to-back corners. The shot from Wadas was this time blocked by junior midfielder Kira Curland, who put her body on the line for the save as she was shaken up on the play. Duke had lost its flier, at least for the ensuing defensive penalty corner. Wadas chose to move the ball on that attempt, and the Blue Devils blocked the eventual shot and cleared it out of their defensive circle.
Duke, a team that has shone in its transition defense and lack of defensive corners this season, faced a first half marred with Northwestern storming through the neutral zone. The Blue Devils faced five defensive penalty corners in the second quarter and 10 total — both season highs.
With 5:25 left to play, Duke had the two-man advantage as a Northwestern player was given a yellow card and Bustin pulled Hampsch. The Wildcats, however, got a huge call with 4:40 left as they were granted a corner. Without Hampsch in the cage, it was a miracle that the score didn’t change, a credit to the Blue Devils stellar defensive corner squad.
“They caught us on transition most of the time…” Bustin said. “It’s a combination of how the defense plays and how the umpires call them. It’s got to work together. And for today, it didn’t work well for us.”
The Blue Devils still had the offensive advantage in theory — with two extra players — but it wasn’t long before two men up became one. With just more than three minutes left, a green card was called on Maransky, who would reenter play with just 20 seconds left in the game. The penalties, one on Northwestern and one on Duke, would expire within three seconds of each in the final minute of the game.
Even as both players rushed back onto the field with just over 20 seconds left, it wasn’t enough as the clock expired, ending the Blue Devils' season.
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