WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Fifth-ranked North Carolina earned a spot in the 2016 Atlantic Coast Conference field hockey championship game with a 3-2 semifinals win Friday afternoon over top-ranked Duke, the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Sophomore Malin Evert’s goal in the 65th minute gave the Tar Heels their first lead of the game and they held on for the victory at Wake Forest’s Kentner Stadium.
“I’m proud of our Tar Heels for advancing to the ACC championship game,” UNC coach Karen Shelton said. “It was a great performance today, a team effort against a very good Duke defense.”
UNC improved to 17-4 and will face No. 6 seed Virginia, winner of Friday’s second semifinal game against No. 7 seed Wake Forest. The title game is set for Sunday at 1 p.m. back at Kentner Stadium. And if Friday’s game is any indicator, fans should plan to be on time.
Anyone who was two minutes late to watch UNC-Duke missed all of the first-half scoring. The Blue Devils (15-3) got a goal on their first trip inside the circle as Margaux Paolino sent a pass from the right baseline out to Aisling Naughton, who nailed a close-range shot to put the Blue Devils up 1-0 just 1:05 into the game.
UNC answered quickly. Sophomore Ashley Hoffman grabbed a ball had been kicked by Duke goalkeeper Sammi Steele and shot it back past her to tie the game at 1-1 just shy of two minutes into the action.
The pace slowed, however, and the score stayed tied at 1-1 through the rest of the half and nine minutes into the second period before Naughton got another goal to give her team a 2-1 advantage.
Sixteen minutes later, it was Hoffman’s turn again, this time in a very different sort of opportunity. In the 60th minute, Tar Heels were awarded a penalty stroke, just their second of the season, after UNC’s Marissa Creatore was fouled from behind in the circle. For the first time in her UNC career, Hoffman got the call to attempt the stroke, and she calmly sent her shot into the lower left corner of the cage to even the score at 2-2.
“I was pretty calm — I knew I had to be,” she said. “I was talking myself through it: what I was going to do, how I was going do it, visualizing it … all that stuff. I was excited — a stroke should be a goal. I was also a little nervous.”
She executed perfectly and for the second day in a row, the Tar Heels were tied at 2-2 down the stretch. In Thursday’s 3-2 win over Louisville, the game-winner came with no time remaining on the clock, but this time UNC didn’t wait quite that long. With 5:49 left to play, senior Emma Bozek sent a ball from the left out to Evert, who carried it just inside the circle and rifled a shot barely inside the right post for the win.
“Our ability to pass the ball, to see each other, to unselfishly move it along is critical for our success,” Shelton said. “I think the girls know that and I think they’re excited. They’re finally seeing what we’ve been talking about all season coming to fruition.”
Duke pulled Steele with 4:17 remaining in an effort to tie the game again with an additional field player, but the Blue Devils couldn’t get another goal.
UNC outshot Duke 17-3 in the second half and 22-6 for the game. The Tar Heels led 13-5 in penalty corners.
It was the third meeting of the season between the Carolina and Duke. UNC won the first, 3-2 in Chapel Hill on Sept. 25, and DU won the second, 3-0 in Durham on Oct. 22.
North Carolina is the defending ACC champion and will play Sunday for its 20th conference crown.
“I’m just really excited for the entire team that we’re going to be there, in the ACC championship game,” Hoffman said.