Surprise, surprise: It's Duke vs. UConn
NORFOLK, Va. -- There will be no rematch of ACC stalwarts Maryland and North Carolina in Sunday's NCAA field hockey national championship.
Instead, Big East champion Connecticut (20-4) will meet Duke (17-6), a team that didn't even make the NCAA tournament last year, at 4 p.m. Both teams survived thrilling semifinals Friday in games played at Old Dominion University's L.R. Hill Sports Complex.
UConn stunned six-time champion North Carolina 2-1 in the first NCAA tournament game ever decided by a penalty shootout. In the day's earlier semifinal, the Blue Devils' 3-2 victory eliminated a Maryland team favored to win its ninth national title.
"The ACC has quite a few talented teams, and it's almost like we're the interloper," said UConn Coach Nancy Stevens. "But we don't feel that way. This is our fourth final four in the last eight years, so we feel very comfortable on this stage."
And while it might seem this championship belongs to North Carolina and Maryland -- either or both of the teams has been in the championship game for the past eight years -- 2013 will start a new chapter. The last time UConn won the title (1985), none of the current players were even born.
"We need to start making a UConn legacy, because we're a good team," senior Marie Elena Bolles said.
The poised Huskies played like the veteran team after a 1-1 tie sent the game into two seven-on-seven overtimes. UConn outshot North Carolina 8-0, but none of the shots squeaked past keeper Sassi Ammer. That meant a penalty shootout -- a new rule this season replacing penalty strokes. Similar to ice hockey, a shootout gives the attacker eight seconds to try and score against a keeper who is free to leave the cage.
"This is fun for us," Stevens promised her team in the huddle. "Just go out there and do your job."
North Carolina (18-6) could not get any of its four shots past two-time All-American keeper Sarah Mansfield, while UConn scored twice.
"This was the first time I've ever done a shuffle or a shootout as you guys call it," Mansfield said through her heavy British accent. "We practice it at least once a week, so I just told myself, 'It's just another practice.' I tried not to worry myself that it was to get into the national championship game."
While UConn won national titles in 1981 and 1985, Stevens is hardly a stranger to success. Earlier this season the 34-year legend of the game became the sport's all-time winningest coach. She has a 571-175-24 record.
Duke's Pam Bustin is a virtual youngster in comparison. Bustin, who spent 13 years as head coach of Louisville and one at Hofstra, is in her third season with the Blue Devils, a program she has revitalized in a short time.
Bustin was the 2011 ACC Coach of the Year in her inaugural season with the Blue Devils, taking them to the NCAA quarterfinals. Two years later, Duke is a game away from its first field hockey national title -- a progression that began at the end of last year when the Blue Devils' season ended in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
Bustin had her team practicing the next day. Those practices, she said, paved the path for this season, which has seen Duke beat nine top-10 opponents, including Old Dominion, Virginia and North Carolina.
Last year "we knew we weren't going to get into the NCAA tournament and we showed up and practiced every day until the final four," Bustin said. "I wanted them to get used to the length of this season and to feel it. They loved it. Those two weeks of practice were the best two weeks of practice we had because that's when the belief began."
Whether it was belief, a three-goal first half or the gutty play of Duke keeper Lauren Blazing, who weathered 19 shots, the Blue Devils were superior against a program that holds a 32-9-3 advantage over them.
Maryland (22-2) had lost only once, also in Norfolk, to Old Dominion on Oct. 20. The Terrapins had beaten Duke in both of their matchups this season in games played six days apart -- a 5-1 drubbing followed by a 3-2 overtime contest on Nov. 8.
They never led in this game, which saw all five goals scored in the first half.
"Every half that we've played Maryland we played a better half," Bustin said. "The first half we played them this season was, 'I don't even know who these people were.' The second half it was a little bit better, ACC tournament and so on."
Duke and UConn did not play this season; the Blue Devils are 2-0 against the Huskies in the NCAA tournament, last meeting in 2008 in the first round.
Duke is 0-3 in NCAA championship games, having lost for three consecutive years starting in 2003.
Sunday's Division I title game will be the third championship decided at L.R. Hill Sports Complex, host to the Division II and III finals beforehand.
Salisbury will meet Bowdoin in the Division III game at 10:30 a.m. followed by Shippensburg vs. LIU Post in the Division II game at 1:15 p.m. This is the first time all three championship games will be contested at one site on the same day.