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WLax: Carolina Defense Stands Tall, 12-6

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Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC regular-season championship, and the top seed in next week’s ACC tournament, were up for grabs on Friday night when number three Duke hosted number two North Carolina—and it was the Tar Heels who did all the grabbing. An early 5-0 run put the Blue Devils in a hole, and a superb effort by the North Carolina defense made sure that Duke never climbed out, holding the Blue Devils to their lowest output of the season.

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Both defenses were solid in the early going, as Duke’s Kelsey Duryea and the Tar Heels’ Kaylee Waters traded saves in the opening moments. It took over five minutes for Duke to open the scoring, as Kerrin Maurer beat Kelly Devlin behind the net and got to the front to finish. Maggie Bill answered for Carolina two minutes later, rolling to the middle and beating Duryea from six yards out, and the Tar Heels exploited poor off-ball defending by the Blue Devils to add four more over the next eight minutes. Devlin got loose in front on consecutive possessions and cashed in pin-point feeds, Sydney Holman found Sammy Jo Tracy cutting behind a ball-watching defender, and Marie McCool scored from the left wing, and Duke was facing a four-goal deficit with 14:36 to go.

Duke responded with goals from Maddy Acton, Katie Trees, and Kyra Harney to make it 5-4, and had possession with a chance to tie, but Harney turned it over, the Tar Heels cleared, and Holman found Tracy again for an easy finish from the doorstep. Ally Messinger got a step on Maura Schwitter with a superb dodge and beat Duryea from the slot to make it 7-4 with 2:38 to go in the half, and Waters made sure Duke didn’t take any momentum into halftime, stoning Taylor Trimble with 44 seconds to go; in the battle for the rebound, Maurer received a yellow card.

The Tar Heels opened the second half with a man advantage, and it took them only 35 seconds to extend the lead. Sam McGee stretched the defense by driving from behind to Duryea’s right, and quick ball reversal found Holman alone to Duryea’s left for a layup. Duke got one back when Trees forced a turnover and fed Taylor Trimble in front with 27:13 to go, but Duke would not score again for over 17 minutes, and in the meantime the Tar Heels put the game away with three unanswered goals.

During a stretch of five consecutive empty possessions, Duke primarily tried to attack one-on-one from up top, but the Carolina defenders simply refused to be beaten, and the Tar Heels cleared efficiently after saves or turnovers. Tracy got her third of the game on a spinning backhand flip from the slot, Messenger ran by Maddie Crutchfield in the left alley and scored, and Bill converted a free-position attempt.

The drought finally ended when Maurer drove the goal line to the right of the Carolina net, got to the front and ripped a low-to-high shot past Megan Ward (who replaced Waters at the half). Duryea kept Duke in the game by stoning McGee on a free-position attempt, and on Duke’s next possession they appeared to have cut the Tar Heel lead to four when Maurer beat Ward from the slot on a feed from Trees. It wasn’t to be, however. On Maurer’s follow-through, her stick hit a Carolina defender (who appeared to clearly be in shooting space) in the face: goal waved off, second yellow card, Maurer done for the night, Tar Heel ball with a five-goal lead and 7:22 to play. Carolina held Duke without a shot the rest of the way, forcing four turnovers, and Messinger added one last goal in transition with 1:07 to go.

Bill led the Tar Heel offense with four points (2g, 2a). Tracy and Messinger had hat tricks, Devlin had a pair of goals, and Holman and McCool contributed single tallies. Waters and Ward combined for six saves. Carolina out-shot Duke, 27-18, and had a plus-seven possession margin. The Tar Heels shot 44.4 percent on the way to 37.5 percent offensive efficiency.

For Duke, Maurer had two goals, Trees contributed a goal and an assist, and Acton, Harney, and Trimble had a goal apiece. Duryea finished with seven saves. The Tar Heel defense held Duke to 33.3 percent shooting and 24 percent offensive efficiency.

North Carolina moves to 13-2, 6-1 in ACC play, and wins the ACC regular-season championship. The Tar Heels will face Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament on Thursday in Charlottesville.

Duke falls to 13-2, 5-2 in the ACC, and earns the number two seed in the ACC tournament by virtue of its head-to-head win over Boston College. The Blue Devils draw Louisville in Thursday’s quarterfinals. Perhaps equally important, Duke comes out of the game with a short but critical to-do list. The Blue Devils’ offense was stagnant for long stretches relying on midfield dodgers who weren’t consistently winning their individual matchups, and there were several breakdowns in the off-ball defense. Those issues will have to be addressed if Duke hopes to make a deep tournament run.