May 15, 2014

Duke Not A Fluke: The Underdog Won't Stand Idle

By Megan Schneider | | Twitter

Duke still stands strong as the only unseeded team in the quarterfinals this weekend. But that has no significance to coach Kerstin Kimel. Can the underdog take home a victory against No. 1 Maryland? (TD Paulius)

Grabbing victories against Stanford and No. 8 seed Notre Dame, Duke has advanced to the semifinals in the NCAA Tournament under the guidance of coach Kerstin Kimel. The Blue Devils now turn to face top-seeded Maryland, a familiar ACC foe, and are now just one step away from the Final Four.

To truly understand the team's mentality during this high-pressure scenario, let's flash back to another school, another sport and another tournament.

In 2011, the University of Connecticut men's basketball team made one of the most impressive underdog runs in college basketball history. UConn was seeded ninth entering the Big East Tournament with a 9-9 conference record against the tough competition. To the surprise of all, the Huskies went on an unbelievable five-game win streak in five days to earn the Big East title, following that up with with six more consecutive wins in the NCAA Tournament to capture the national title against Butler.

Now what does UConn's story have to do with Duke women's lacrosse? It is a story of inspiration and motivation; it encapsulates the frame of mind the lady Blue Devils currently embody; and it stands as a prime example for Kimel to use while she preps her team for a game that will either end the season or catapult them further.

"Kerstin always uses the UConn men's basketball team as a good example in the tournament season for winning the national championship," said senior Maddy Morrissey. "We've always said that we didn't want to peak too early and this is the perfect time to peak."

With the support of fellow student-athletes at Duke, including those on the men's lacrosse team, the lady Blue Devils are focused on playing like champions against Maryland so they too can have the chance to earn that national title.

Morrissey believes her squad is still a threat, one that should not be counted out just yet. They are the only unranked team left in the tournament, while the remaining bracket is comprised of five ACC and two ALC teams – No. 1 Maryland, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Florida, No. 5 Northwestern, No. 6 Virginia and No. 7 Boston College. Duke just drew the toughest of the bunch to prove their worth.

"We're pretty used to it," said Morrissey. "I feel like we're always the underdog. We had a tough season and we should've won some games that we lost. We just need to prove that we are better than what we ranked."

In Lacrosse Magazine's final update to the Top 20 rankings, Duke rested at No. 14. The Blue Devils entered the NCAA tournament 9-7, with their last loss coming at the hands of Virginia in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. But their final win of the regular season is worthy to note – a 7-6 overtime victory against North Carolina, who once sat at the No. 1 spot earlier in the season.

"Knocking off UNC at the end of the season really showed us that we could do anything," said Morrissey. "Going to play Maryland this weekend, we have more confidence because of that game and there is a lot of parity in our conference. Everyone's been beating everyone and playing great."

The common notion throughout the NCAA Tournament is that each team starts with a fresh slate and anything can happen regardless of record or rank – and Duke believes just that.

"We didn't even look at whether we were seeded or not," said Duke coach Kerstin Kimel. "The six-seven-eight seeds – we're all ACC teams and we're all within one or two goals of beating each other or losing to each other. So for us, whether we were seeded or not has had no relevance."

Of the six ACC teams left in the tournament, Duke included, all of which have to face each other in the quarterfinals, Maryland was the Blue Devils' first conference opponent in the regular season and easily trumped Duke 19-10 on March 1. It is now May, more than two months down the road, and Duke has played much closer games against the remaining ACC foes.

"Maryland is the team that we played the longest ago so we've evolved a lot since we played them the last time," said Kimel. "From my standpoint, that, for us, is better than playing someone that we played more recently, like Virginia or Carolina in the last couple weeks, so we're excited for the chance to go up there. We're still alive."

The Duke coaching staff knows what it takes to outsmart Maryland coach Cathy Reese and the Terps. This year's team may not have accomplished such a feat just yet, but Kimel led her Blue Devils to a 9-7 win over Maryland in the quarterfinals of the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

Following that victory, however, in the history of Duke-Maryland postseason matchups, the Terps came out on top in 2011, 14-8 in the semifinals, and then last year as well, 14-9 in the quarterfinals. The last time Duke made a Final Four appearance was in 2007, but was eliminated by Virginia with a 14-13 decision.

"We've beaten Maryland in this round before," said Kimel. "We know it. This group hasn't necessarily but our coaching staff has and our players have, so it's something that we feel really confident in our ability to put together a good game plan. It's just going to be a matter of getting up there and taking care of business on Saturday."

In order to bring home a win, Duke needs to improve its shooting game on offense, as well as its defensive strategy. It's all about putting together a complete game from one end of the field to the other – and in transition.

"Last week [against Notre Dame], we shot well and we defended well, but we didn't do well on the draw, and the draw has been a great strength of ours throughout the season so we're kind of back at square one," said Kimel. "[Against the Terps back in March] we were just beat in transition and that's just Maryland's game. If there's one thing you can't do is you can't let them run over you in transition."

The key player Duke needs to keep an eye on is Tewaaraton finalist and Maryland sophomore midfielder Taylor Cummings. She is one of the primary reasons the Terps have been so successful in maintaining possession, starting with the draw. Cummings boasts 111 draw controls thus far this season, and in the second round against Penn, she captured 10 of the 17 draw controls for Maryland.

"We have been living the season just being really scrappy on the draws and loose balls," said Kimel. "That's something we didn't do very well last weekend that we need to work on going into this week. We don't have somebody who can place the ball exactly where they want but I think our kids around the circle and behind the restraining lines do a good job. Our biggest goal this weekend is to try to put together the best game we possibly can in all zones of the field."

Kimel said she expects her team to perform better in transition if they can make it a settled game, limiting Maryland's speed and negating the run game. But for Morrissey, it's all about playing as a team and to their utmost potential.

"Play with no regrets," Morrissey said, which will likely be her opening line for her pregame speech to her team on Saturday. "I like speaking to the freshmen directly because I remember when I was a freshman, you don't really understand how important it is to win. When you're a senior, you're like, 'Whoa! Oh my gosh. This is our last game if we don't win.' I just tell them that it means so much for our team and they are just as good as any senior and can do anything that they want. How important is it to me, to us seniors? Play for us."

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