Cavaliers face Duke in ACC Tourney opener
Team seeks revenge for 16-11 defeat against No. 7 Blue Devils in March
On March 22 — just more than a month ago — the No. 14 Virginia women’s lacrosse team took a long, somber bus ride from Durham, North Carolina back to Charlottesville. This was not the way the Cavaliers had expected their season to go. The preseason excitement was gone, with Virginia falling to 4-6 overall and 0-3 in the ACC after a 16-11 loss against No. 7 Duke.
In serious danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in her 19 years at the helm, coach Julie Myers knew something would have to change. But while she expected her team to rally, she hardly could have thought the turnaround would be so strong.
After the Duke defeat, the Cavaliers finished the season by winning five of their last six games, with three victories against stiff conference foes. Now entering the ACC tournament, Virginia (9-7, 3-4 ACC) — the No. 5 seed — will get its rematch against Duke (9-6, 3-4 ACC) — the No. 4 seed — in a first round clash.
“I think we’re excited to face Duke again,” Myers said. “That was a game that as soon as it ended, we wanted to play them again.”
The Cavaliers’ last meeting with the Blue Devils was tightly contested. The teams traded goals throughout the game, and Virginia took an 11-10 lead with 10:02 to play. The last 10 minutes, though, left the Cavaliers shell-shocked as Duke netted six unanswered to come away victorious.
Virginia was outshot by just five goals and won just three fewer draw controls than the Blue Devils, but was ultimately doomed by poor midfield play. The Cavaliers converted only 12 of their 20 clears, leading to several easy transition goals for Duke.
“We knew we had that game,” senior attacker Liza Blue said. “They’re a great team, but they’re no better than us.”
In a last-ditch effort to turn the season around, Myers changed up her personnel. Offensively, sophomore attacker Kelly Boyd stepped into the starting lineup, and has since helped to revive a potent Cavalier attack. Through the past six games, Virginia has averaged 15 goals per game — two more than in the previous 10 contests. Boyd has contributed 13 of her 17 goals this season in that six game stretch.
“[Boyd is] a great cutter and a great stick in the middle,” Myers said. “I think she’s really added some power. Because we have that inside presence, it’s taken some of the pressure off our one-on-one players outside as well.”
On the defensive side, junior midfielder Morgan Stephens has transitioned to her new role as a close defender, rarely leaving the field. Her presence has put more pressure on opposing offenses, benefitting senior goalkeeper Liz Colgan. Colgan has made at least 10 saves in four consecutive games and is currently sixth in the nation in averaging 10 saves per game.
The personnel changes not only provided a different look for their competitors, but also brought a new energy to the team. Virginia has played with a passion and poise that it lacked earlier in the season, allowing it to earn upsets against No. 6 Boston College and No. 13 Notre Dame.
“We’re a lot more confident and more sure of our game,” Blue said. “I think before we were playing not to lose, but now we have confidence to win.”
Such confidence will be necessary as the Cavaliers face the same powerful Duke squad that defeated them in March. The Blue Devils are just 2-3 since they faced Virginia, but they finished their season on an uptick last week as they upset No. 4 North Carolina in overtime, 7-6.
Against the Tar Heels, Duke found itself in a 6-4 hole with 23:23 remaining, but shut down the UNC offense and clawed its way back in. Junior attacker Kerrin Maurer scored with 26 seconds remaining in the extra period to cap the effort.
Slowing Maurer — who leads the Blue Devils with 72 points on 47 goals and 25 assists — will be necessary for a Cavalier victory, but the team knows that just locking down her will not be enough. In the last meeting, Maurer was one of four Duke players to tally a hat-trick.
“They’ve got some really powerful attackers, middies and defenders,” Myers said. “We’ll have to play a great game, but we’re excited to have that next chance at them.”
Perhaps the biggest key for Virginia will be for junior attacker Courtney Swan and the rest of the draw team to consistently give the Cavaliers offensive possessions. The Duke defense surrenders only 10 goals per game, and held Swan — Virginia’s leading scorer with 69 points — to just two assists in their meeting earlier in the season.
Swan is 12th in the country at draw controls, averaging just more than five per game. If Virginia can use this to its advantage, the Cavaliers could easily take control behind offensive trio Swan, Blue and junior attacker Casey Bocklet.
A win would continue the Cavaliers’ run and set them up for postseason success — and if the last six games are any indication, they will give the Blue Devils all they can handle.
“We’re on the verge of being a very great team,” Blue said. “This Duke win would mean a lot to us.”
The opening draw is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.