Heading into Wednesday’s game, the Blue Devils had lost five of six games and looked to be barreling toward their worst season in almost 20 years after falling out of the national rankings.
When No. 16 Elon stormed back from an 8-4 deficit to tie Duke at nine with less than four minutes left, it seemed as though the Blue Devils’ misery was about to continue, with all of the momentum shifting to the Phoenix.
But when Duke needed it most, All-American Maddie Cruchfield scored one of the biggest goals of her life—one that maybe have saved the season for head coach Kerstin Kimel’s team.
With just 12.6 seconds on the clock, the junior launched a bullet past netminder Rachel Ramirez for the go-ahead goal as the Blue Devils escaped Rudd Field in Elon, N.C., with a hard-fought 10-9 victory Wednesday night after Elon’s furious second-half comeback. Junior Grace Fallon led Duke with four points on two goals and two assists, with Crutchfield, Catherine Cordrey and Hayley Shaffer each contributing two goals of their own to give the Blue Devils their first win against a ranked opponent since Feb. 18.
“We have not won as much as we’re accustomed to winning,” Kimel told GoDuke.com. “So I don’t care how [Crutchfield’s goal] went in, it went in and we’re happy to get out of here with the win.”
Duke (6-5) started the second half of the contest with a healthy 7-4 lead on the Phoenix (8-3), and Crutchfield stretched that lead to four with a goal just 37 seconds into the period. But Elon refused to go down without a fight, capitalizing on a 25-minute Blue Devil scoring drought to pull itself back within one goal.
Duke appeared to gain some breathing room when it went a man-up after Phoenix junior Abby Godfrey picked up a yellow card and Fallon assisted on Shaffer’s second goal with 5:12 remaining.
However, even though the Blue Devils’ defensive strategy almost exclusively focused on shutting down offensive weapon Stephanie Asher—who already had 36 goals on the season entering Wednesday’s contest—the junior managed to rip two quick shots past freshman goalkeeper Gabbe Cadoux to knot the score at nine with 3:41 to go.
Despite having to deal with more adversity after giving up 34 goals in its previous two games, a resurgent Duke defense kicked it into high gear to force Elon into a crucial shot-clock violation with 58 seconds remaining. Although a failed clear gave possession back to the Phoenix, Ramirez coughed the ball up and Crutchfield came away with the ground ball with 29 seconds remaining to set up her stunning top-shelf game-winner.
“At the end of the day, it was the things we did throughout the game that made it, like going hard,” Crutchfield told GoDuke.com. “There were a lot of turnovers at the end but the game plan was just to go hard.”
The Blue Devils struck first in the opening half, converting a caused turnover from Anne Slusser into a quick goal from sophomore Ellie Majure. Elon found some momentum from there, though, scoring four goals to Duke’s one in the next 17:30 to take an early 4-2 lead.
But after the back line held the Phoenix scoreless for the final 8:59 of the opening half, Duke’s defense displayed a newfound confidence. The Blue Devils limited the multi-goal runs that cost them their last two contests and stifled Elon in the most crucial moments of the game. Their critical first-half defensive stand allowed Duke to stay in the game and reclaim its early lead heading into halftime thanks to five unanswered goals.
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“We focused on a few very simple things coming into this game,” Kimel told GoDuke.com. “Our kids did a good job of executing those few simple things that we were really focused on.”
Duke will look to carry its much-needed momentum back into ACC play when it takes on No. 11 Syracuse Sunday for its first home contest since March 4. Although the Orange have garnered quality wins against Boston College, Virginia and Northwestern, their two-game losing streak may be the perfect opportunity for the Blue Devils to secure their first conference victory of the 2016-17 campaign.
With just five regular-season contests remaining and a bid to the 26-team NCAA tournament on the line, Duke is desperate to reestablish itself as an ACC contender. The Blue Devils will need to continue playing well to get back into the rankings and withstand a final stretch featuring four top-20 opponents.