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UNC field hockey defense shuts out Duke in ACC Championship

UNC field hockey coach Erin Matson celebrates with her team after winning the 2023 ACC Championship in the Friday, Nov. 3, 2023 game against Duke at the University of Virginia. UNC beat Duke 2-0.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The Blue Devils’ first goal never came. But when the buzzer sounded, the Tar Heels’ 26th ACC title did.

No. 2 UNC held No. 3 Duke to just one first-half shot and seven shots in the game — tied for the second-lowest mark of the season for Duke. The Tar Heels took home their seventh consecutive ACC Championship on Friday night with a 2-0 win, largely thanks to their defensive stronghold.

Then, UNC's offense started to gain some confidence in the second. Still, it couldn’t put points on the board. But it didn’t matter, because Duke didn’t score. The defense gave the offense time to breathe.

"Our defense is, I think, one of the best in the nation, and without them, we wouldn’t be getting goals," sophomore forward Ryleigh Heck said. "So it all just came down to doing it together and doing it as a unit."

With the proper amount of airspace, talent and practice, you can make a shot fly, and that’s just what Heck did. On a penalty corner in the third quarter, she rebounded her shot, flipped it up high into the air and watched as it dropped in the net.

North Carolina got on the board, and soon, the Blue Devils came back swinging. Duke drew three consecutive penalty corners shortly after Heck’s goal. 

Duke inserted the first corner, took a shot at the goal and was denied by graduate goalie Maddie Kahn. The Blue Devils drew another corner, with the ball crashing right into Kahn’s pads. Stopped again.

"We talked about our line goals," Kahn said. "My line goal that I made for myself was executing on defensive penalty corners, picking a skill in executing. So for me, that was a really big focus point."

On the third penalty corner, UNC sixth-year back Romea Riccardo moved expeditiously and immediately got her stick on the ball to stifle the shot.

Duke didn’t score.

"Within the past couple of games, we definitely have been struggling with our corner defense execution," Riccardo said. "So that was something that we really wanted to focus on."

Duke’s defense was aggressive out of the gate. The Blue Devils were jumping on passes and tightening their grip on the Tar Heels’ offense throughout the night.

"We knew they were going to come out really hard, this was a big game for them," Kahn said. "They haven't won an ACC Championship before in the tournament. So we kind of knew they were going to come out hard and weren't really surprised."

Despite their impact on the championship, no UNC defenders made the All-Tournament team. The results speak for themselves, though.

Riccardo has now won six ACC Tournament championships. She laughed when asked if she would hold it over her former teammate and current head coach Erin Matson, who has five as a player.

"Well, I guess I was given one more opportunity," Riccardo said. "I'm sure if she was given a sixth one, she would have won it too."

Matson wasn’t caught up in the numbers, though. This was her first time experiencing a championship at UNC from the sidelines. 

"It’s something you wish everyone feels," Matson said. "One of those moments you're like, I wish I could share this feeling with everybody."

On Friday night, she got to share that moment with her team. And without the defensive efforts by her Tar Heels, that moment may have never been possible.


@dthsports |

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