GAINESVILLE, Fla. - After watching its three-goal lead evaporate early in the second half, the fifth-ranked Duke women's lacrosse team closed out the game with a 5-0 run to earn a 13-9 victory over No. 4 Florida Saturday afternoon from Dizney Stadium in NCAA quarterfinal action.
With the win, the Blue Devils, who improve to 15-4 overall, advance to the national semifinals for the sixth time in program history and the first time since 2008, while Florida finished its year with a 16-4 overall ledger. Duke will face top-seeded Maryland Friday, May 27 at 5 p.m. in Stony Brook, N.Y.
"I'd like to congratulate Florida on an unbelievable season," head coach Kerstin Kimel said. "They deserve all the credit and congratulations from their coaching staff, to their kids. I just can't say enough about how hard we had to work this week to get ready for them. That is really a testament to how talented they are and how hard they worked all season."
The two teams were evenly matched across the board, with Florida holding the slight edge in total shots, 23-21. However, Duke earned the advantage on the draw with a 13-11 margin, including an 8-2 lead in the first half which allowed the Blue Devils to take a 6-3 lead into halftime.
"We have people who have been here," added senior Sarah Bullard. "We knew that they were going to come at us, but we also knew that if we could stay our course and play our game, we would win."
Junior Kat Thomas turned in a solid, all-around performance with three goals, an assist and four draw controls. All three of Thomas' goals came in the second half, with her final score giving Duke a two-goal cushion with 4:13 remaining. Bullard also netted a hat trick in the game, while redshirt junior and Tewaaraton finalist Emma Hamm added two goals, an assist, two caused turnovers and two ground balls.
In addition, senior Christie Kaestner totaled four points on two goals and two assists. The Trappe, Md., native has dished out 45 assists this season to set the Duke single season record, breaking the previous mark (44) set by Kristen Waagbo in 2007.
Despite temperatures in the 90s and Florida recording the first goal of the contest, it was Duke who came out strong at the beginning as the Blue Devils established a 4-2 lead in the first 10 minutes. Kaestner got Duke on the board three minutes in, and Bullard followed to give the Blue Devils a 2-1 lead at the 6:30 mark.
Florida tied things up at two just over a minute later, but Duke closed out the half on a 4-1 run, starting with Hamm's goal at 9:33. Kaestner pushed Duke's advantage to two a minute later off a Thomas assist and the Blue Devils' offense continued to click following a Gator goal as Hamm and Hommel added free position goals to give Duke the 6-3 lead.
A defensive stalemate ensued for the remaining 9:35 of the half, and Duke would head into the locker room with a 6-3 lead.
"We weren't going to pretend that the heat wasn't going to be an issue today," added Kimel. "We were trying to be really mindful and deliberate about how we managed our possessions. Our offense did a really great job of pushing the tempo at times and then pulling back and being very deliberate with what we were running. Our intention was to be really on top of our game management in order to manage the heat."
However, Duke's lead was short-lived in the second half as Florida stunned the Blue Devils with a 6-2 streak over the first 12:34 of the second stanza to take a one-goal lead. The Gators took went up 9-8 with 17:26 to play after Janine Hillier netted back-to-back goals.
"We knew the draw was going to be so important in our game," said Kimel. "That's where we saw momentum slipping is that we weren't winning the draw. Florida does an astounding job of pushing tempo off the draw and we were giving those up. That really went against our game plan. We called a timeout to recollect and refocus everyone and take a deep breath. I thought our girls did a great job coming out of that timeout of recapturing momentum and possessing the ball and working our offense."
Despite the drastic shift in momentum, the rest of the game belonged to the Blue Devils. Kaestner found a cutting Bullard to tie the game at nine-all and a minute later, Hamm fed Quirke for arguably the biggest goal of the game to give Duke a 10-9 lead with 13:13 to play.
Nine minutes elapsed before Thomas registered her third goal to put Duke up two with 4:13 to play. The Blue Devils, playing a man up after a Florida yellow card, controlled the remainder of the contest as the Gators were unable to regain possession. Bullard and senior Virginia Crotty added the final two scores for Duke to close out the game.
Three Gators - Kitty Cullen, Janine Hillier and Caroline Chesterman - netted two goals each, but the Blue Devils' defense was able to stymie a talented Florida offense for much of the game.
"Our mindset this year has been to face every game as a nameless, faceless opponent," said Hamm. "It doesn't matter how much experience the other team has, we're going in knowing who we are and what experience we have and going forward from there."
Next up, Duke will face Maryland in the national semifinal, scheduled for Friday, May 27 from Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium on the campus of Stony Brook University. The semifinal games will be streamed live in HD on www.NCAA.com at 5 and 7:30 p.m. (ET), while the championship game will be streamed at 4 p.m., Sunday, May 29. Tickets for the semifinals and final can be purchased online at http://www.goseawolves.org/tickets/ston-10-ncaalax-tix.html.