Duke's nonconference matchup against an unranked Denver team, played in front of a rather empty Koskinen Stadium crowd, did not seem like a noteworthy contest for the Blue Devils, certainly not when Duke ranked No. 2 in the country.
But the stakes for the Blue Devils could not have been any higher Tuesday night, looking to break a five-game winless streak. Winning wouldn’t guarantee anything, but losing or even tying would almost certainly eliminate the possibility of making the NCAA tournament.
Luckily for Duke, the Blue Devils weathered the storm with a crucial first-half goal from senior Colby Agu, earning the precious 1-0 victory with a smothering defensive performance. It was a frustrating night offensively for both teams and stoppages constantly broke the flow of the game, but a boring victory is better than a spectacular loss.
“It was a well-deserved win,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “We worked really hard collectively and it was nice to see that we were resilient.”
The only score of the game came in the 20th minute in unexpected fashion. After an intense fight for possession in the midfield, the ball ended up on the foot of Agu with a perfect opening. The Blue Devil forward took his time and nailed the left corner of the goal.
Agu's goal brings back fond memories for the Cary, N.C. native. The senior scored his first goal for the Blue Devils back Oct. 28, 2016 against UNC Asheville in what was his second game at Koskinen. Tuesday night marked his second-to-last Koskinen appearance.
“I do remember that game freshman year,” reflected Agu. “It was the second game of the John Rennie Tournament and I scored. It was a huge coincidence, but I am glad it brought us good luck.”
Other than the Agu goal, the most memorable moment of the night was an incident involving Duke's jerseys. Due to some unforeseen issues, the Blue Devils (7-7-2) were forced to switch their blue and black uniforms out for their white and blue ones right before kickoff. The whole Duke bench rushed to the locker room after the player introduction and brought back the white jerseys for the starters to swap.
Duke played solid defense for the entire 90 minutes, as every promising Pioneer opportunity was thwarted. The forwards retreated deep into the box to defend set-pieces, the midfielders and defenders stopped counter-attacks and goalkeeper Will Pulisic was locked in all night, intercepting several crossings before the Denver strikers could get a touch. The Pioneers only recorded two shots and neither were on goal.
“The defense was impressive,” Kerr said. “Denver is a good team. They played a lot of top teams and managed to keep it close. We knew that they were going to come in and not be afraid of us. They were trying to go over the top early and I thought we did a good job winning the first ball and the second ball tonight and we needed to because they were sending the numbers forward tonight. I don’t think we made any real mishaps, which was nice to see.”
On the opposing end, the Pioneers (3-10-3) followed a straight and simple defensive approach: the ball can get past you but Blue Devils can not. They committed an astonishing 24 fouls. Among the three Denver players that got a yellow card, midfielder Liam Johnson was the true expert at getting whistles. In a five-minute stretch before the game ended, Johnson registered a brutal shirt-grabbing, a forceful knock and a behind-the-back tackle before Denver coach Jamie Franks himself couldn’t tolerate the unsportsmanlike conduct anymore, taking Johnson off the field.
Duke will close out the regular season Friday, hosting Virginia Tech. Again, winning will be the only option for the Blue Devils if they want to clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament.
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