With Duke and No. 18 North Carolina facing off on the Blue Devils’ Senior Night in the last regular season game of the season for both teams, it’s natural that tensions were running high.
From the opening whistle, this most recent edition of the storied Tobacco Road rivalry was visibly heated—players heckled each other a little extra, continued contact more than usual after the whistle and were rather reckless with challenges on the ball. Recognizing the need to take control of the game before things got out of hand, the referees called fouls early and often, resulting in 16 combined fouls in the first half alone and 28 by the end of Sunday’s 1-0 Tar Heel win at Koskinen Stadium.
More notable, though, were the nine yellow cards, some more controversial than others and leading to even more exchanges between the opposing players. Duke’s Nicolas Macri, Ian Murphy, Peter Stroud and Daniel Wright all received yellow cards from fairly aggressive tackles on Tar Heel players, causing some of them to leave the game to get looked at by the trainers. North Carolina wasn’t any better, receiving four individual bookings as well as one yellow card for the bench in the 60th minute after a particularly exaggerated reaction to a call made by the referee.
“It’s a typical Duke-UNC game in anything, right, so that played a major part in it, but they’re also trying to win the game so they can put themselves in position for a bid in the NCAA tournament,” Blue Devil head coach John Kerr said of the apparent tension. “So there’s a lot at stake for them, and it was pride for us.”
The game’s lone score came in the 32nd minute, when North Carolina played some smart passes off of a throw-in deep in Blue Devil territory and got the ball to midfielder Tim Schels. The freshman then gave the nifty assist to senior forward Alex Rose, who tapped the ball past Duke senior goalie Michael Reis, who was making his first appearance of the season.
The Blue Devils (4-10-3, 4-6-1 in the ACC) honored their six seniors or graduate students prior to the contest—in addition to Reis, the list included Macri, Wright, Matthias Frick, Stephen O’Connell and Jack Doran.
“They have a lot of experience, they have a lot of success, and we counted on them a lot for leadership,” Kerr said of the seniors. “It was nice to give a shot to Michael Reis cause he’s been a little unlucky playing behind two excellent goalkeepers in [Pulisic and Hamill], but he’s been a great soldier for us and I was happy to give him the start [Sunday], and I thought he did great.”
Hostility aside, the game felt fairly even overall, as the two teams traded attacks throughout. Duke applied solid pressure in the beginning of the contest, sending long balls in the direction of freshman striker Thorleifur Ulfarsson, who has proven he can make plays when given a one-on-one with a defender. One of the Blue Devils’ best opportunities came around midway through the first half, when quick passing up the field led to Wright threading the ball through the Tar Heel backline to Ulfarsson, only to have it called back as Ulfarsson stepped offsides.
This proved to be the story of the game for Duke: getting the ball into the attacking third only to turn it over either by a reckless pass or an offside call. The Blue Devils had 10 corner kicks in the contest compared to only one for the Tar Heels (7-4-3, 7-2-3), so they had no shortage of opportunities in the box. Unfortunately, Duke came away with zero shots on goal to show for the tremendous amount of pressure it put on the North Carolina defense.
“It’s been the same old song all season, where the last pass or the last finish has been lacking,” Kerr said of the failure to convert on opportunities. “We’ve found it in a couple games and we’ve scored multiple goals, and then in other games we’ve just drawn a blank. We lack consistently in [the attacking third] of the field.”
Duke had a promising chance at the equalizer in the 78th minute, when freshman Miguel Ramirez chased down a through ball and tapped it off the back of his heel to Ulfarsson right in front of the goal. But a Tar Heel defender got in the way at the last second and deflected it out of bounds for a corner.
The Blue Devils' disappointing loss will conclude a season that had its ups and downs, but undoubtedly showed promise for the future, as Duke will try to continue to foster its large collection of young talent in preparation for next season.
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“We’ve suffered in some games and had a great amount of success in some games,” Kerr said. “We’re not despondent. We’ve taken our licks, but we’re gonna come back and be stronger for it…. We need to try to continue our progression...and come back bigger, stronger, faster and ready for the fall.”