On a brisk night in Cary, N.C., Duke fans were filled with hope for less than 30 seconds before that hope was ripped away from them—as well as any chance of an ACC finals appearance.
The third-seeded Blue Devils lost in heartbreaking fashion to No. 2 seed North Carolina 2-1 in the ACC tournament semifinal at WakeMed Soccer Park Wednesday evening. Duke was able to net an equalizer down the stretch, but the Tar Heels would respond an advance to the conference finals.
ACC Rookie of the Year, Issa Rayyan, was the hero of the game for the Blue Devil— tying the game with less than four minutes to go. James Pyle initially denied the breakaway, but Rayyan stuck with it to flick it past Pyle and get the equalizer—celebrating with a backflip before being surrounded by his teammates.
Unfortunately, North Carolina answered immediately. Within 30 seconds of Duke’s goal, Jelani Pieters broke away and cleared space— despite being surrounded by Blue Devils—and launched a shot that hit off a defenders foot, bounced over Pulisic’s head and into the goal to put the Tar Heels back on top 2-1.
“We weren’t organized and maybe got caught out of position, maybe we were thinking we were going to get the second goal to take a 2-1 win,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “But we got out of position. Pieters is fast, and he made a good move to go inside and cut back to his left… and then an unfortunate deflection to go over Will [Pulisic]’s head for the goal.”
Going into Wednesday night’s matchup, Duke was 2-3-1 against its Tobacco Road rival in the ACC tournament, with a 1-0 Blue Devil victory in 2012 the most recent. In 2005, the rivals had a monster tournament matchup in the ACC finals, with Duke topping North Carolina to win the ACC title in a shootout—only the program’s second ACC title.
Duke (10-6-2, 5-3-0 in the ACC) had trouble getting into an offensive rhythm in the first half, with no shots and one corner kick that was broken up by Pyle. North Carolina's defense did a good job of shutting down Duke’s potentially explosive offense of Rayyan and goal leader Danielle Proch.
“We started off slowly again in the first 15 minutes," Kerr said. "There were moments in the first half when we had some good possessions, but it wasn’t enough.”
The first shot for either team came in the 29th minute when Mauricio Pineda— who had three of North Carolina’s four shots, two of which were on goal—sent a snipe to the left side of the goal, sending Pulisic diving to the ground to make the save and force the corner kick.
The Tar Heels (14-2-1, 6-1-0) took advantage of that fifth corner of the game when a Duke defender headed the corner into the air, which threw Pulisic and the defenders off. This allowed Giovanni Montesdeoca to knock the ball into the goal—after just entering the game before the corner—for the first score of the game, putting the Tar Heels up 1-0.
Montesdeoca continued to open up shots for North Carolina in the second half, moving easily around the defenders with quick footwork and playing impressively in transition—driving the ball down toward the goal while surrounded by Duke blue.
“At halftime we reminded them how good they can be if they were brave and courageous and willing to get on the ball and not be afraid to make mistakes," Kerr said. "I thought we were really really good in the second half… We took the initiative and created some unbelievable opportunities.”
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After the first half goal, the momentum—already favoring North Carolina—shifted totally to the Tar Heels. Pineda notched another shot right before the half, which Pulisic saved, sending North Carolina into halftime with control of the game.
Duke came out of the locker room with renewed energy, partially sparked by Suniel Veerakone starting the second half off the bench. The Blue Devils were light on their feet with fast, soft touches to keep the ball moving and gain momentum.
Veerakone created a couple early opportunities for the Blue Devils in front of the goal and off a corner. Proch had his first shot of the game with a chip over the defenders from right outside the box that floated just above the crossbar. Later on in the half he had another opportunity off a beautiful ball by Williamson, but Pyle was there to shut down the threat.
Despite Montesdeoca’s big breakaway runs in the second half, Pulisic and Duke’s defense held up against a powerful, attack North Carolina offense. Pulisic kept the Blue Devils in the game with five saves on the game—three of them all within five minutes in the second half.
The defense broke up what looked like a definite second goal in the latter part of the second half, with North Carolina driving the ball towards the net and Duke deflecting it out and keeping the game within a single goal.
One of Duke’s first real chances to score came with almost 10 minutes left, when Issa Rayyan beat the ACC Defensive Player of the Year—Alex Comsia—and was one on one with Pyle. The ACC Goalkeeper of the Year who had a brilliant save with his leg to keep the Tar Heel lead.
After North Carolina’s goal that put them ahead by one again, Matthias Frick had a chance at another equalizer, but couldn’t get a good shot off near the post, allowing the Tar Heels to clear the ball.
“It’s painful… we’ve got to regroup and look foreyard to the postseason and the NCAA tournament. I’m very proud of how they played in the second half, and if we play like that in the postseason, I think we can make a deep run," Kerr said. "But we have to remind ourselves that we have to play with that intensity throughout the first half and the second half to give ourselves a chance.”
While North Carolina will advance to face Louisville in the ACC championship game, the Blue Devils will wait for the NCAA selection show, which will be Nov. 12 at 1 p.m.