Head coach Robbie Church was calm in the locker room at halftime of Duke’s quarterfinal matchup against Long Beach State. His Blue Devils had played uninspired soccer in the first 45 minutes in front of a raucous home crowd and needed to score in order to reach what would be their second NCAA semifinal in program history, and first since 1992.

Ordering his players to simply play the same brand of dominant soccer they have all year, Church rallied his team to two second half goals, and No. 1 seed Duke cruised past the 49ers with a 2-0 victory.

“We’ve been a second-half team,” Church said. “[In] the second half, something clicks with this group. I think they felt like we were the better team. We had to finish things.”

With the win, the Blue Devils advance to the national semifinals in Kennesaw, Ga., to take on ACC rival Wake Forest Friday.

Duke overcame yet another sluggish first half that saw few legitimate scoring opportunities, though freshman striker Kelly Cobb missed a golden chance to put the Blue Devils ahead after 23 minutes. With Long Beach State’s back line playing precariously far up the field in an attempt to catch Duke’s forwards offsides, sophomore Mollie Pathman lofted a perfectly measured ball over the top of the defense to Cobb, who took one touch from 12 yards and rifled a shot off the underside of the crossbar.

The chance was one of few first half defensive lapses from the 49ers, who came into Friday’s matchup without having conceded a goal in their last five matches. With a clear strategy to soak up whatever pressure the Blue Devils could muster and hope for a goal on a set-piece play, Long Beach State possessed the ball for a small percentage of the game and managed only three shots—none of which troubled junior goalkeeper Tara Campbell.

Still, 49er head coach Mauricio Ingrassia’s plan and his players’ resolute defending caused problems for the Blue Devils, who had scored 10 goals in three NCAA tournament games. Right back Jenny Soza’s tireless work to stop Pathman from providing service from the wing and Long Beach State’s group effort on Duke midfielder Kaitlyn Kerr helped to stall the Blue Devils for the opening 45 minutes.

Without much depth on their bench, however, the 49ers could not keep up their frenzied defense for long, and Duke created a flurry of goal-scoring opportunities in the second half.

Holding the ball in the offensive third for nearly the entirety of the second half, the Blue Devils finally broke through in the 67th minute when a Kim DeCesare header found the back of the net after a long passing movement. Pathman found the space on the field that had not been allowed to her in the first half, and left her defender on the turf with a quick feint before providing an inch-perfect cross to the back post. DeCesare, who had only just been substituted into the game, rose above her defender and directed the ball past 49er goalkeeper Kaitlyn Gustaves.

Just seven minutes later, Gilda Doria gave Duke the insurance it needed. The sophomore, who limped through part of the second half after suffering an ankle injury, drove a left-footed strike from the top of the 18-yard box, and Gustaves was late in reacting. Doria’s clinical finish with just 16 minutes remaining gave the midfielder her first career goal, and sealed Church’s first career trip to the NCAA semifinals.

For Pathman and the rest of the sophomore class that has been so integral to the Blue Devils’ revival, the triumphant moment was one foreseen by Church years ago, when the veteran coach was building the team that would eventually become an ACC powerhouse.

“I remember on my recruiting visit, Robbie walked around the field showing me the Final Four [banner] and said, ‘This is want we want you for. This is what we’re going for.’ Now [we’re] here and going for a national championship,” Pathman said.

Although Duke has now clinched two of Church’s season goals—winning the ACC regular-season title and advancing to the NCAA semifinals—the Blue Devils still have one more prize left to claim. Joining two other ACC teams in Georgia next weekend, Duke is now two wins away from capturing the first national title in program history.

“We set goals at the beginning of the year that we wanted to go to the Final Four, and we’re going,” Doria said. “I think we’re still going to remain focused because we still have two more games and we’re chasing that national championship.”


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