Duke loses heartbreaker in Chapel Hill

Natashi Anasi helped the Duke defense hold the ACC's most potent attack scoreless until the 87th minute.
Natashi Anasi helped the Duke defense hold the ACC's most potent attack scoreless until the 87th minute.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When two of the best teams in the nation clash, the difference between winning and losing is often decided by the slimmest of margins. One missed tackle, an unexpected bounce of the ball or a bobbled save can have a monumental impact on the final scoreline.

In a matchup of soccer giants that went down to the wire, the opportunistic Tar Heels scored the game-winning goal with a little over two minutes left on the clock, when striker Kealia Ohai’s toe-poke from close range trickled across the line before Duke goalkeeper Tara Campbell could scamper back and clear away the ball. The decisive goal—a scrappy finish after a chaotic scrum in the penalty area—was altogether unworthy of what was a beautifully played game, but No. 10 North Carolina’s (10-2, 5-1 in the ACC) vital win extends its dominant record over the No. 3 Blue Devils (13-2-1, 5-1-1) and reopens the title race in the tightly-packed ACC.

“We had opportunities, and we have to stick in those opportunities,” head coach Robbie Church said. “It’s a very disappointing match because we could have had a better result than we did here tonight.”

Duke was without its leading scorer—freshman striker Kelly Cobb—who suffered an ankle injury in practice and is currently day-to-day. With Cobb absent, the Blue Devils lacked one of their biggest offensive threats and were forced to adapt their offensive scheme—a transition that took nearly an entire half to set in.

Duke started off slowly and was lucky not to concede an early goal to a high-powered North Carolina offense, which dominated possession through the first 30 minutes of the game. Tar Heel sophomore Crystal Dunn routinely bullied her way past the Duke defenders and used her speed to pose a significant threat.

In the 18th minute, only the heroics of junior center back Libby Jandl kept Dunn from a breakaway chance. With Dunn headed toward the goal after an elevated through-ball from midfielder Amber Brooks found its mark, Jandl made a last-ditch tackle in the open field to stall the attack for the Tar Heels.

Just a few moments later, Dunn again had North Carolina knocking on the door when she broke free down the left flank and centered the ball for Ohai. From 25 yards out, the striker had time to pick a target and tried to curl a shot around Campbell at the far post, but blasted the chance over the crossbar.

Although the Tar Heels were able to break down the Duke defense on the flanks, center backs Natasha Anasi and Jandl did a masterful job of keeping themselves between the ball and the goal, doing enough to disrupt Ohai and the rest of the North Carolina attackers.

“I think our backs played pretty well,” Campbell said. “We took the brunt of their initial wave [of possession] and then settled in and defended [well] the rest of the game.”

Chances were rare for the Blue Devils in the opening period, but substitutes Chelsea Canepa and Kim DeCesare helped even the run of play for Duke, and each easily could have scored. Canepa had a look at an open goal in the 30nd minute after a handling error from North Carolina goalkeeper Adelaide Gay, but the senior rushed the shot from a narrow angle and the ball rolled harmlessly across the face of goal.

Despite being thoroughly outplayed in the first 45 minutes, Church stuck with his starting lineup to begin the second half, and his players rewarded him with their effort. Duke finally began to string together creative passing spells, but still was unable to convert in front of goal.

Employing a much wider attack than what was seen in the first half, the Blue Devils broke the Tar Heels defense down with long through passes, mostly distributed by midfielder Kaitlyn Kerr. In the 59th minute, Kerr’s incisive pass along the ground to an unmarked Laura Weinberg scrambled the defense, and allowed Mollie Pathman to find space at the top of the box. Weinberg passed to Pathman with time to shoot, but the sophomore delivered a disappointing left-footed strike that flew straight to the goalkeeper.

Freshman Katie Trees, who played a career-high 21 minutes in Cobb’s absence, had Duke’s best opportunity of the game with just nine minutes left on the clock. Trees weaved through two defenders and had a clear shot on goal, but nicked the ball with her left plant foot, and could not connect cleanly with her right, blowing her shot wide of the near post.

The Blue Devils’ offensive inefficiency would be punished later, when a handball by DeCesare enabled one last chance for the Tar Heels. Courtney Jones lobbed a free kick into the penalty area, and the ball eventually fell to Ohai, just a few yards away from the goal line. Ohai and defender Alex Straton tangled and the North Carolina striker fell to the ground, but was able to flick the ball past Straton and Campbell, giving the Tar Heels a lead with just 2:45 remaining.

“They capitalized on their opportunity,” Kerr said. “In big games, big players have to step and capitalize.”


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