Disappointment, disappointment and more disappointment.
Under the radiant Raleigh sunshine in a packed Dail Soccer Stadium, the 12th-seeded Blue Devils suffered a frustrating 2-1 loss to No. 5 seed North Carolina State in the first round of the ACC tournament Wednesday afternoon. After winning its first four games of the season and reaching a No. 2 ranking, Duke's once-promising 2019 season is likely over before the NCAA tournament begins.
“You know what’s strange is that we started off the first five minutes pretty good,” Blue Devil head coach John Kerr said. “Then the one time they went down the field, they scored which gave them a lot of confidence because they were jittery and we were on the front foot. And then surely that second goal they scored settled them down.”
The Wolfpack (9-5-3) opened scoring in the sixth minute, securing a lead they would not lose. Midfielder Gabriel Machado sent in a sudden long ball that found forward Ivy Brisma in a wide exposure on the right wing and Brisma comfortably adjusted his position, giving defender Pepe Garcia a perfect opportunity to score.
17 minutes later, North Carolina State's David Loera chipped the ball to forward Kuda Muskwe, who beat Duke goalkeeper Will Pulisic with ease to put North Carolina State firmly in the driver’s seat, leading 2-0.
The Blue Devils (7-9-2) entered the game with a new lineup that mirrored what Kerr used at the beginning of the season, as all seven seniors that played major minutes this season started. Sergi Nus came back as the center back after falling out of the rotation in October and Max Moser manned the flank as a starter for the first time after his second-half injury at Pittsburgh.
“Ian [Murphy] couldn't play due to an injury and we put Sergi in because he can handle the ball,” Kerr said. “We just want to get Max Moser [to play] in probably his last game as a senior because he’s been [injured]. I want to give him a chance and he did well.”
The veterans, along with junior Daniel Wright, produced most of Duke’s threats Wednesday afternoon, including its lone goal that came right after the second Wolfpack goal. 28 minutes into the first half, Max Moser kicked in a short corner to Daniel Wright, who flicked a quick low cross to Daniele Proch in the middle. Proch found the back of the net one last time for the Blue Devils, as he sealed his Duke career with 28 goals.
In the last minute of the first half, Duke almost leveled the competition with another set-piece. A Kristofer Gardarsson corner from the left side found Suniel Veerakone, whose forceful header traced a promising straight line in the air, only to be denied miraculously by North Carolina goalkeeper Vincent Durand. Veerakone notched the game-winner against the Wolfpack his freshman year, but wasn’t able to replicate his late-game heroics three years later.
To start the second half, North Carolina State decided to park the bus, with all 11 players retreating into defensive positions. The Blue Devils controlled almost all the possession in the first 40 minutes of the second half against an opponent that didn’t even attempt to counter attack.
“I thought our effort in the second half was great and we just could not get that important goal,” Kerr said. “If we could get a second goal to tie it up, we probably can go on to win the game just like [what we did] at Carolina. We fell short and that’s been the story of the past five weeks.”
Duke’s best equalizing opportunity came in the 82nd minute. On a one-man run against two defenders, Proch managed to turn the corner and sent a cross to Daniel Wright at the far post. The junior midfielder sprang from the ground and struck a header, but it hit the crossbar.
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After 40 minutes of fruitless attack, Duke's energy waned. In the final minutes of the game, North Carolina State enjoyed two easy opportunities and the referee ignored a Blue Devil tackle in the box that could have resulted in a Wolfpack penalty. But none of these fortunes provided Duke with the momentum to complete the comeback.
“We are learning what’s called the hard way,” Kerr concluded the season. “We need to learn quickly and understand that at some point we have to get over that hurdle because we can’t just play good soccer. We can’t just be creative. We have to finish plays and we didn’t [this season]. If we finish plays, we would be in a totally different position.”