North Carolina came in like a wrecking ball, but despite getting hit hard, Duke’s defense stood strong.
The unranked Blue Devils were outshot 20-6 in their Friday night showdown against the No. 8 Tar Heels, but strong play from fifth-year goalkeeper Alex Long and the Duke backline kept the game knotted in a scoreless draw through 110 minutes of action at Fetzer Field.
"Our last few games, as you know, we haven't done as well as we wanted to," Long said. "Of all games, this was the best game to step up and show our best performance, and I think we did exceptionally well."
The Blue Devils (4-4-3, 0-3-2 in the ACC) and the Tar Heels (3-1-5, 0-0-5) have both been plagued by a lack of offense this season, and Friday's contest was another episode in the continued impotency of both teams. Both Duke and North Carolina have only tallied four goals in five ACC games this year.
Still, the Duke defense was under pressure from the outset. The Blue Devils constantly threw numbers behind the ball and gave up possession, satisfied to seek opportunities on the counterattack. After the opening 20 minutes, Duke had been outshot 8-1.
“We were expecting pressure from them,” said Long, who made seven saves on the evening for his third shutout of the season. “They’re a very good team, and they love to press high and force errors so that they can counter. We were all prepared for that.”
In the 19th minute, the Tar Heels forced one of those errors, one of few on the night for the Duke backline. Right back Jack Coleman slipped and turned the ball over to Verneri Valimaa, who sped in on the left side of the box in a 1-on-1 with Long. Valimaa uncorked a curling shot to the bottom right corner, and Long flew to his left to edge the ball aside and keep the game scoreless.
In a surprising personnel decision by head coach John Kerr, leading scorer Brody Huitema opened the game on the sidelines as seniors Will Donovan and Alex Sauciac earned the starts at striker for the Blue Devils. Kerr elected to start the game with six seniors, a decision that he said was not coincidental.
“The beginning of the game was always going to be tight in a game like this between Duke and Carolina, so we went with experience to start the game,” Kerr said. “And the young guys got a chance to look at the game as it started and figure out ways to help the team, and I thought they all made a massive contribution tonight.”
Donovan took over at right back in second half for Coleman, and Duke continued to utilize a deep bench, keeping fresh legs on the pitch in hopes of wearing down the Tar Heels. Although outshot 7-3 in the second frame, Duke had a number of quality scoring chances on the counterattack.
In the 60th minute, midfielder Tyler McDaniel beat the Tar Heel defense on the right wing and looked to cross before being tackled inside the box by Jordan McCrary. The Duke bench was visibly outraged and pleaded to referee Mike Stutt for a penalty, but with no success.
Six minutes later, Huitema, who came into the game in the 27th minute and did not leave the field for the remainder of the contest, had the best chance for either side in the entire game. Junior Nat Eggleston won the ball in the midfield for Duke and fed Sauciac, who threaded a pinpoint pass to Huitema onto the edge of the 18-yard box. Hitting it first-touch with his right foot, Huitema made solid contact, leaving North Carolina goalkeeper Brendan Moore helpless. Moore’s silent prayer was answered, though, as the ball sailed and clanged harmlessly off the crossbar.
Although he didn’t get the start, Huitema pleased Kerr with his performance Friday.
“I thought he was very sharp, he added an extra threat, moving forward into the final third and with a lot of energy in the second half as well,” Kerr said. “He was unlucky when he hit the crossbar, but he caused a lot of problems for them. I’m happy with how [the lineup decision] went tonight.”
The Blue Devils had another excellent opportunity in the 84th minute as junior Sean Davis and Huitema combined to set up Nick Palodichuk with a shot from 12 yards out, but the attempt was parried by a sprawling Boyd Okwuonu.
North Carolina controlled the majority of the possession in the overtime periods and held Duke without a shot in extra time, but Long and the defense were relatively unchallenged.
Despite Duke’s inability to crack the Tar Heel defense and find a game-winner, Kerr was unequivocal about his reaction to the team’s performance.
“For us to come back and get a result here in Chapel Hill, in the ACC, against a very good team?” Kerr said. “It was a spirit-builder.”