DURHAM, N.C. — The second-ranked Blue Devils captured the ACC regular-season crown and the No. 1 seed in the upcoming conference tournament for the first time with a 3-0 shutout of No. 4 North Carolina on Saturday. Duke rounded out its regular-season ACC slate with a 5-1 mark while improving to 14-2 overall.
Head coach Pam Bustin’s squad put a 3-2 non-conference loss to Tar Heels (12-4, 3-3 ACC) earlier this season in the rearview mirror, holding North Carolina scoreless on 11 shots and four penalty corners.
“When we were looking back at that first game, we were just surprised at how we react the second half,” Bustin said. “Since then, every game we’ve been addressing situations that had come up in that game. That game was really a good thing for us in hindsight, in terms of how we adjust. Today, when we went in at halftime, the idea was to come out and expect a few things, make a few changes ourselves, but really just to keep the energy that we came out with in the first half.”
Both sides began the contest by bringing pressure in the backfield and a defensive battle ensued. A midfield tackle by Aisling Naughton set up the Blue Devils’ first penalty-corner opportunity of the afternoon, but it was senior Robin Blazing who would break through first on a corner play in the 25th minute. Blazing, who also had a crucial game winner against Wake Forest last week, deflected in a shot by junior Alyssa Chillano to put Duke in front.
Redshirt freshman goalkeeper Sammi Steele and the defensive unit protected the Blue Devil lead, with Steele coming out to cut off a Tar Heel opportunity before making a key stop right in front of the Duke cage. The strong defensive play set up a second tally, as sophomore midfielder Morgan Bitting sent a ball from the left side of the circle over to junior Ashley Kristen, who put it away at the front post for her sixth goal of the year.
The Blue Devils entered the locker room at the half with the 2-0 advantage.
After surrendering three second-half tallies to North Carolina in the September meeting in Chapel Hill, Duke kept the defensive pressure on the Tar Heels for the final 35 minutes. The second period began with a diving save by Steele on a North Carolina corner, although the Tar Heels’ Alex Halpin also came up with a stop on the next possession.
“They definitely put the pressure on our circle defensively a bit more, but I’m really proud of how the team adjusted and didn’t sit back but actually stepped forward,” Bustin said. “We were just staying on task. If you don’t go off task too often during the game, you really don’t lose control of something bigger at the end of the game … Sammi did her job today and she did a great job, but I think really the defense in general, they played pretty attacking today.”
Naughton extended the Blue Devil lead in the 44th minute, finishing on a sweeping pass from junior midfielder Alexa Mackintire to make it 3-0.
North Carolina pulled Halpin from the cage for the final 10:41 and drew a corner just a couple of minutes later. Duke’s defense was able to break up the play and Steele made a diving glove save on a final Tar Heel offering to preserve the team’s fourth shutout of the season and first in ACC competition.
“We were just playing calm and steady, really keeping communication up, not getting too frazzled,” Steele said. “Any time it started to get a little chaotic we just calmed it back down and stayed true to our game.”
Steele totaled eight saves — one off her season high — while Halpin had six for North Carolina. The Tar Heels held an 11-10 advantage in shots, though the Blue Devils placed nine of their looks on goal.
- The victory over the Tar Heels is the first for Duke since 2013.
- Duke’s Ashley Kristen has notched at least one point in four straight contests, while Robin Blazingand and Aisling Naughton have tallied a point in three straight matches.
- The Blue Devils claimed the ACC regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament for the first time in program history. Duke receives a bye in the first round of the conference championship, and will face the winner of a quarterfinal matchup between North Carolina and Louisville on Friday, Nov. 4 at 1 p.m. in Winston-Salem, N.C.