CARY, N.C.—The Cinderella story for the Blue Devils continued Friday night at WakeMed Soccer Park as they defeated reigning national champion Florida State 2-0 in the semifinals of the College Cup.
Junior forward Toni Payne made a weaving drive toward the goal to set up teammate Kayla McCoy for the game's first score in the first half—the first the Seminoles had allowed all postseason. Payne then broke away from the pack for a goal of her own with the clock winding down, beating the Florida State goalkeeper with less than five seconds remaining to give the Blue Devils a 2-0 lead and set up a date with top-seeded Penn State Sunday for the national championship.
“When you start this journey, your dreams are that you end on the last day,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “I really could not be prouder of this team.”
Although the Seminoles controlled the ball for much of the first period, the Blue Devils (14-5-5) were first to find the net on McCoy's strike that flew past goalkeeper Cassie Miller. The goal was the first allowed by top-seeded Florida State (18-2-5) in the NCAA tournament.
“I think if it weren’t for Kayla’s dynamic run across the box, we wouldn’t have had that opportunity,” Payne said. “She did excellent and she’s been big time for us the whole season.”
The journey through the tournament has not been an easy one for Duke. The defeat of the ACC champion Florida State was the fifth victory against a conference champion by the Blue Devils in route to the national championship game. In the first round, Duke routed Colonial Athletic Association champion James Madison, then topped Atlantic Sun champion Florida Gulf Coast, SEC champion Florida and Pac-12 victors Stanford.
The Blue Devils met the Seminoles in Durham in October and battled to a scoreless draw in a game that Florida State played without may of its regular starters. Duke kept the defending national champions at bay Friday, moving within one win of the program's first national championship.
To finish the gauntlet, the Blue Devils must find a way to beat a No. 1 seed for the third consecutive contest.
“The end goal is that we want to win a national championship,” Payne said. “It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, if it’s a team ranked lower than us or higher than us, we have the confidence to be able to take them on.”
Entering the College Cup matchup, the third-seed Blue Devils were 10-0-2 when scoring first on the year—and McCoy made sure Duke got on the board early once again Friday. The freshman teamed with classmate Taylor Racioppi throughout the regular season to combine for 15 goals and combined for four more shots against the Seminoles Friday. The last time the Blue Devil squad featured a freshman leading scorer on the season was 2011—also the most recent year the team advanced to the title game, which ended in a heartbreaking loss to Stanford.
Duke overcame a 16-8 shot deficit against the Seminoles with a team effort in the defensive third of the pitch. Sophomore goalkeeper E.J. Proctor recorded her 11th solo shut out—bringing her save total to 76—and much of the final 15 minutes featured a strong defensive lineup from the Blue Devils as Church opted to play an additional defender to protect the net and guard against an equalizer.
“We talked about when do we make a change?” Church said. “Once we decided to play three midfielders…I think it did a really nice job.… In this game its very difficult when you put five players behind the ball.”
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The Seminoles threatened to even the score in final 15 minutes, but the Blue Devil defenders were able to block away the most threatening shots. With less than 30 second left, Duke cleared the ball to midfield, where Payne assumed control and took off downfield to double the lead with one second left in the contest.
In the third appearance in program history, Duke remained undefeated in NCAA semifinal action and advanced to play Penn State in the title match Sunday at noon in Cary. The two squads faced off Aug. 28 in State College, Pa., in a game that ended in a scoreless draw.
“I think at this point we’re just brimming with confidence,” McCoy said. “We are confident in each other, we’re confident in our game plan of what we’ve been doing and we’re confident that we will have success on Sunday."
The Nittany Lions defeated Big Ten foe Rutgers 2-0 in their College Cup semifinal earlier Friday.