GREENVILLE, N.C.—If styles make fights, then one shared style makes for a long, slow, painful battle to the death. A battle where one Maggie Graham-Sophie Jones connection was enough to provide the fatal blow.
It took No. 9-seed Duke 102 minutes to beat Arizona State 2-1 in a Saturday-afternoon second-round match in the NCAA tournament. The Sun Devils were fresh off a 4-0 beatdown of Siena, while the Blue Devils received a first-round bye. As is typical of Duke, it showed some signs of rust in the first 10 minutes in Greenville, N.C., but shook it off and assumed control thereafter, having not played since its April 11 game against Vanderbilt. And while Arizona State was far from the most-talented team in the Blue Devil's bracket, its slow, possession-focused style was bound to give Duke fits.
And give Duke fits it did, outside of a couple of Delaney Graham crosses and Marykate McGuire drives, while the Sun Devils put just enough pressure on the Blue Devils from the wings to keep things even.
Overtime was anyone’s game, and Arizona State had a couple good looks at the goal in the extra minutes, including a wide-open look off a corner that was shot right to Duke goalie Ruthie Jones. But when the Blue Devils ran a counter in the 102nd minute, and recycled the ball from Tess Boade in the box outside to midfielder Maggie Graham, they got the only look that mattered.
“It's all kind of a blur. But what I remember was just a great pass out to Tess, and she tried to play it early in the box, and I wasn't quite in the box yet,” Sophie Jones said. “And then the defender blocked it, she passed it back to Maggie. And then that's something that we've been working on, so I knew when Maggie had the ball, she was going to try and play it back-post. And luckily, she played a great ball and I just got my foot on it.”
After the Blue Devils settled into their rhythm, they were able to control the pace of the game for most of the remainder of the first half. The Sun Devils were able to force Duke to keep possessions between its back line and midfielders, and the balls that Arizona State was able to grab were mostly kept far away from Ruthie Jones by the swarming Blue Devil front line. But the breakthroughs that did come in the period went in Duke’s favor, with striker Olivia Migli registering the first shots on goal in the game early on.
“We play a lot of different formations during the year, we do a lot of different formations in our training, so it's nothing new when we change,” head coach Robbie Church said. “Once they started to go forward and start just playing longer balls, is when we went to three centre backs…. We went to two low midfielders to win second balls…. I give our players a lot of credit for being able to go in and out of different formations. And that's not really easy to do. And we played a 4-2-3-1 a lot, and that's what we went back to in overtime, and that's what got us the winner, was coming out of that 4-2-3-1 formation.”
One of those changes was moving Delaney Graham back up to forward. Graham, a two-time All-ACC and Top Drawer Soccer Top-100 player at wing back, was moving to winger in the fall when freshman fullback Emily Royson emerged and the Blue Devils needed more athleticism up front. She proved a raw talent, and was moved back to wing back this spring. But she started against Arizona State at winger again, and in the 28th minute delivered the best pass of her career, a perfect crosser from the right wing outside the box that landed on top of attacking mid Tess Boade’s foot. Boade simply flicked her foot forward and up, and Duke had the early lead.
The beginning of the second half looked very similar to much of the first, and for a while, it seemed that Duke could hold its way to a 1-0 win. It nearly extended in both the 57th minute, when Delaney Graham nearly delivered a goal-scoring crosser from the left side of the box, and in the 63rd minute, when centre-forward McGuire appeared to beat the Sun Devils’ last defender, but was waved off on a questionable foul.
Arizona State had some chances in those minutes as well, but none were quite as close to scoring as Duke’s were. The Sun Devils also had some opportunities throughout the last 25 minutes of regulation, earning three corner kicks, enough to wonder whether the Blue Devils leading by one goal was enough.
The last of those corner kicks came in the 86th minute, and while Duke turned away the initial action, the ball went to the left side ahead of the box, where Arizona State wing back Cori Sullivan corralled it. Unmarked, she was able to get off a shot that bounced off the top crossbar downwards and into the net for the tie.
Both teams kept pace in overtime, trading close calls and long possessions on their own side of the field, until a different Graham sent a crosser from the right wing into the box, onto another Blue Devils’ foot. This time it was Maggie to Sophie Jones, and a split-second later, Jones pulled out the airplane celebration as she was mobbed by her teammates.
“Great goal by Sophie at the back post. Great service, great finish,” said Church. “Two really nice goals. So that really helps here in the NCAA tournament, because we're not going to give up a lot of goals, and if we could just create some—and we created two really big goals today.”
Fans in attendance would be forgiven for forgetting which Devils were Sun and which were Blue. With both teams playing through their centre backs and relying on quick counters to generate their best looks, each of the 102 minutes was a certain kind of excruciating. At one point toward the end of the first half, Duke spent about four minutes just passing the ball back and forth between centre backs Taylor Mitchell and Caitlin Cosme and Royson.
Arizona State is the first team that Duke has played whose style resembles its own. With Ole Miss and presumably Florida State, two teams with vastly different play-styles, standing between the Blue Devils and the College Cup, they won’t have to worry about having to fight in a mirror any time soon.
Duke's next test will come Wednesday against Ole Miss in the Round of 16.
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