With the Blue Devils dominating possession Friday night, it seemed like it would only be a matter of time until the hosts finally seized a lead.
But with a cold, steady rain falling onto the Koskinen Stadium turf and Duke unable to find the net for more than 75 minutes, overtime appeared a real possibility.
So it was only fitting that, in what was likely her last game in Durham, senior Kayla McCoy managed to do what she always does once more—score.
McCoy's 78th-minute tally, a redirected header from a lengthy free kick by junior Ella Stevens, turned out to be the match's lone goal, as No. 4 seed Duke edged out Rutgers 1-0 in its opening-round contest of the NCAA tournament. With the win, the Blue Devils advanced to the Round of 32 for the seventh time in their last eight tries, putting them one step closer to the program's first national title.
"A couple of times early we really ran at them, but we took a heavy touch and it came off the end of the field," Church said of his team's many opportunities. "But I felt like if we could just keep running at them—we just talked about opening up wide and getting those wide players 1-on-1."
Duke (15-3-2) had been putting balls outside all night and it looked like if a goal was going to come, it would be from the run of play. Instead, a long through ball for McCoy fizzled out into a Scarlet Knight throw-in before some pushing and shoving between Blue Devil midfielder Sydney Simmons and Rutgers' Tiernny Wiltshire drew the attention of referee Kevin Broadley.
Broadley then issued a quick yellow card to the Scarlet Knight junior, setting Stevens up from just a few feet inside the far sideline and about 40 yards from the goal.
The Blue Devil junior whipped one in high with her right foot and McCoy, who had her back to the goal just outside the 6-yard box, jumped up and nodded the ball just enough to slip it past the Rutgers goalkeeper at the back post.
"We kind of felt one coming," McCoy said. "There was a lot of jostling going on at the top of the box and I saw some open space at the near post area. I just feel like me and Ella saw each other and she served it right in there."
The Scarlet Knights (11-4-5) never really applied much pressure in the game, despite logging nine shots to match Duke. Rutgers got deep into the Blue Devil third in the very last minute, only to get whistled for offsides with less than 30 ticks to play.
That all but ended things as Duke cleared the ball and salted away the final seconds before the horn.
“Everybody knew it was going to be a hard-fought game,” Church said. “Rutgers doesn’t give up many goals.... In the second half, we had a lot of good buildups. We did a much better job of winning first, second balls. We were better on our tackles and much more dangerous with our wide players creating things from the outside in.”
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After finishing second in the Big Ten during the regular season, the Scarlet Knights were stunned in the conference tournament opener and needed an at-large bid to make it into the NCAA tournament.
But Rutgers, which played eight overtime games this season, nearly made the most of its postseason opportunity before ultimately coming up on the wrong end of their 17th game decided by one or fewer goals this season.
Still, it wasn't all good news for the Blue Devils. They started the game with Caitlin Cosme in the back along with regular starters Chelsea Burns, Taylor Mitchell and Delaney Graham. And although Cosme, who entered with just 16 minutes under her belt, helped preserve another Duke clean sheet, it came as a result of injury to classmate Karlie Paschall.
The Blue Devils' leader in minutes and starter in all 19 games before Friday, Paschall ruptured her Achilles during training in the lead-up to the matchup with the Scarlet Knights, putting a sudden end to her season.
That said, Duke's season will go on, albeit most likely away from Durham—something the Blue Devils didn't have to do until the College Cup semifinals last season.
"I was thinking about [not playing another game at Koskinen] all this coming week," McCoy said. "We wanted to go out on a high note, us seniors, especially knowing that it was our last game on this field that we've spent four years on."
Assuming top-seeded Georgetown can handle Central Connecticut State, Duke will travel to Washington D.C. next weekend. The Blue Devils have to first knock off Lipscomb Friday afternoon before getting a potential shot at redemption vs. the Hoyas—Duke and Georgetown played to a scoreless double-overtime draw in late August.