Duke was stunned, but just for a moment.
After leading 1-0 and dominating all facets of the game, the Blue Devils allowed a goal on Illinois State’s first legitimate scoring chance of the game, and with 15 minutes left the contest was deadlocked.
But something inside Duke’s players woke up, and they responded with two goals in the next four minutes to live another day and secure a spot in the Sweet 16.
The third-seeded Blue Devils defeated the Redbirds 3-1 Friday evening at Koskinen Stadium in the Round of 32, with senior Toni Payne leading the way with two second-half goals to bring her NCAA tournament total to three through two games. With junior Casey Martinez securing the win with a free kick into the top-right corner of the goal in the 79th minute, Duke handed Illinois State its first loss since Sept. 8 and set up a date with Northwestern Sunday.
“She is a big-game player,” Blue Devil head coach Robbie Church said of Payne. “She’s got another gear that she’s shown in the tournament.... Any time it’s a big game, you know Toni Payne is going to come and play.”
The Birmingham, Ala., native would not be denied on her second goal to give Duke its lead back. As she carried the ball down the field and toward the box, she slowed down with an array of moves to keep her defender on her toes. Then she faked left, dribbled right and with an open look at the top of the box, fired a goal into the bottom right corner of the frame.
The goal sprang the Blue Devils (14-4-3) back to life after having just been quieted by an Illinois State goal. At the 74-minute mark, the Redbirds (14-6-3) secured their first corner kick of the game, and senior Brooke Ksiazek found the back of the net through a mob of players in the penalty box with a strike from seven yards out.
“My stomach dropped,” Martinez said. “But…everyone stepped up an extra level from what we were already playing and that’s what really put them away.”
Payne’s goal did just that. It moved her to third all-time on Duke’s NCAA tournament career points list, with all 16 points coming in the past two seasons. Last year, perhaps most iconically, she beat Florida State goalkeeper Cassie Miller with one second left on a breakaway to secure a 2-0 win in the national semifinals.
Her second goal Saturday opened the floodgates for Duke, as just 94 seconds later, another star from last season’s postseason run, Martinez, found the back of the net.
Martinez—the granddaughter of former standout Baltimore Orioles pitcher Felix “Tippy” Martinez—sliced her free kick into the top-right corner of the goal with the kind of spin that would have made her grandfather proud.
“Hopefully my grandpa was watching,” she said before correcting herself. “He always watches all my games.”
Martinez has an especially strong "weak" foot and takes numerous set pieces for Duke, including corner kicks and free kicks. Junior Ashton Miller tends to be the go-to player in those situations, but Duke had not scored in its last eight games off a set piece, and Martinez crosses the ball with more hang-time and bend.
Her set-piece skills earned her the nickname “special teams,” and last year she totaled four assists in the postseason, including one in the quarterfinals against Florida on a free kick.
Payne put the team on the board thanks largely to junior Imani Dorsey, who stole the ball in the middle of the field and sent a through ball for Payne. Although Payne started significantly behind her defender when making the run, she beat her, got to the ball, dribbled around goalkeeper Haley Smith and found the back of the net in the 48th minute.
“When we’re playing teams with a high line, we really try to press them,” Payne said. “We’re trying to make it back [to the College Cup], we don’t want to be a one-time team.”
The Blue Devils controlled the game, outshooting Illinois State 27-2 and taking 13 shots on goal to its two. Duke has now won 14-straight NCAA tournament games at home and can extend that streak Sunday, playing against the Wildcats at 2 p.m. after the co-Big Ten regular season champions knocked off Southern Illinois University Edwardsville 1-0 earlier Friday.
“We’re still growing, we’re still coming together,” Church said. “Three goals, I’ll take that in the NCAA tournament at this point.”
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