CARY, N.C.—It was like déja vu all over again for the Blue Devils, for reasons both right and wrong.
For the second time this season, an underdog Duke squad took down Clemson 1-0, looking like the better team for most of the match against its higher-ranked counterpart. Also for the second time this season, it nearly threw a landmark performance away at the last minute.
The fifth-seeded Blue Devils and the fourth-seeded Tigers traded low-percentage shots for much of the first half, with a couple of near misses sprinkled in. Duke head coach Robbie Church even had to yell across the field at right back Emily Royson after an ill-advised shot attempt, and advised the team at halftime to avoid giving Clemson goalie Hensley Hancuff easy saves on the near post.
Right winger Karlie Paschall ignored that advice, however.
“I looked up, and I was gonna cross it, and then I saw their goalkeeper kind of cheating off the line,” Paschall said. “Robbie said not to kick it to the near post. I kind of went against his word and did it anyways.”
That’s how Hancuff got crossed-up and unable to stop Paschall’s strike from curling in for the game's lone goal in the 51st minute.
Clemson, never one to go down easy, fought to the end. The Tigers (6-4, 5-3 in the ACC) seemingly tied the score off an own-goal from Blue Devil goalie Ruthie Jones in the 74th minute, but it was called off on a phantom foul on Clemson forward Maliah Morris.
The atmosphere of the match shifted immediately. The Tigers seemed to feel they weren’t simply battling back against Duke anymore—it was as if they felt they had come all the way back, and had been slighted by the powers that be. They got chippy. They started fighting with the refs, with defender Makenna Morris, sister of Maliah, audibly yelling “you suck!” after a Blue Devil slide tackle was deemed clean. Clemson defender Harper White would earn a red card (perhaps an excessive penalty) after a dirty slide tackle of her own.
The Tigers continued to fight for the equalizer, but all of that chirpiness allowed Duke (7-3-2, 4-2-2) to bleed time off the clock. Nevertheless, with less than a minute to go, Clemson received another opportunity to tie the score when Blue Devil wing back Mia Gyau knocked an upfield Tiger pass out of bounds instead of shielding it out of bounds, setting up a corner kick. This is exactly what Royson did just 12 days ago to open the door for Florida State’s walk-off goal.
Fortunately for Duke, this corner was defended well, essentially ending the 1-0 affair.
“We didn't execute as well as we'd like to,” Church said of the final few possessions of the game. “I think we need to work on the end-of-the-game execution some. I don't think we killed the game off as well as we needed to. But, you know, it did work out our way.”
So the Blue Devils ended up repeating the good history from their previous match against Clemson, and avoiding the bad history from Florida State. That’s going to need to be an ongoing theme this week—Duke is heading to the ACC semifinals for the first time since 2017, where it'll face none other than the top-seeded Seminoles.
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“I know we still have more to go and more games to play, but we were definitely focused on that," Paschall said of her and the rest of the senior class' focus on getting past the first round of the ACC tournament. "I think it's really sweet that [in] our final year, we were able to go further than we have since freshman year. I know our freshman year team was really special, and obviously we can't fully replicate that, but I think we have momentum going for us for the rest of the tournament.”
Duke will face off against Florida State Friday at 5:30 p.m., with a trip to the ACC Championship Game on the line.