The saga of Duke’s road struggles reached a new level Tuesday night as the Blue Devils fell to UNC Wilmington 2-1.
Despite leading for most of the second half, Duke (3-4-1, 1-1-1 in ACC) surrendered two goals in the final ten minutes to watch its first road victory of the season slip away. Yet the result was not without its fair share of controversy. A suspect handball call in the 81st minute led to a red card and a penalty shot for the Seahawks (3-5-1), shifting the momentum from the Blue Devils in the waning moments of the game.
“We played quite well tonight and dominated most of the game,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “It’s really an unfortunate situation.”
The first half consisted of fairly even play between the Blue Devils and Seahawks. The lone goal opportunity for either side in the half came on Duke’s first possession of the game. Freshman Ryan Thompson took a corner kick and fed a pass into the box, only to see sophomore Nat Eggleston narrowly miss a header over the crossbar.
The pace of play picked up significantly in the second half as the Blue Devils came out of the locker room with a renewed vigor. Controlling tempo early, Duke was able to strike first with a goal in the 56th minute off of another set piece. For the second time in the game, Thompson launched a pass into the box off of a corner. This time, however, junior Sebastien Ibeagha took the header and put it into the back of the net for his fourth goal of the year.
“[Ibeagha is] a real handful on any set pieces we have,” Kerr said. “He’s shown up every single minute of every single game… and we know that every chance we get at having a set piece in the game, we can be dangerous.”
Yet the match would take a dramatic turn during the 81st minute of play in favor of UNC Wilmington. With the Seahawks in the box and the center referee a mere five yards from the action, the side referee signaled a handball call against Duke. On the ensuing penalty kick, UNC Wilmington scored to tie the game at one apiece. It was the first goal allowed by senior goalkeeper James Belshaw in more than three matches.
Disaster would strike again just three minutes later for the Blue Devils. As Duke pushed its team forward on offense in an attempt to take the lead, the Seahawks gained possession and launched a quick counter-attack. With fewer defenders to beat, UNC Wilmington’s Jamie Dell slipped past the defense and scored the go-ahead goal with just minutes remaining. The score would hold at 2-1 in favor of the Seahawks.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re totally in control of the game and the penalty decision shifts all the momentum in their favor,” Kerr said. “We had the game until that penalty call.”
Looking forward, Duke will need to bounce back quickly as No. 6 North Carolina comes to Koskinen Stadium Friday night. Though the Blue Devils have been great on the defensive end led by Belshaw, the offense will need to continue to make improvements on the attack if they are to beat the defending national champions.
“[The Tar Heels] have some really talented players and we know it’s going to be a difficult task for us,” Kerr said. “But we’re playing rather well at the moment. This is our first set back with having three straight games without having a goal scored against us…. Good things are around the corner.”