CHAPEL HILL—It was starting to look like the Blue Devils might allow two goals to open the second half, let alone create any possession. But the uncharacteristic play extended to both sides.
Duke finally broke North Carolina’s attack nine minutes into the second half at Dorrance Field, as wing back Olivia Migli stole possession on the left back, and played a give-and-go with centre forward/second striker Mackenzie Pluck. Smooth dribbling from Pluck got her by a North Carolina midfielder, and as played it back inside to Migli, the Blue Devils suddenly had a man-up.
When Migli passed to a freshman striker Michelle Cooper, that’s when Duke took the deepest breath it had taken in years.
“When we made them move back a little bit, [they] really wasn't that dangerous. So I knew I thought we would catch them on a counter,” head coach Robbie Church said. “Once we started possessing the ball, you can see almost the air go out of the stadium. It got really quiet in here when we were possessing the ball and moving the ball too.”
Cooper, unmarked, crossed it to enganche Tess Boade, who only needed to adjust the ball’s path for a wide-open goal—Duke’s first against North Carolina in over four years.
“In 2017, we were considered probably the best team in the country. And we still couldn't beat UNC—both times we played them,” centre back Caitlin Cosme said. "And I think every year after that, I don't think our team truly believed we could beat them. We'd be in the locker rooms like, 'We're gonna beat them, we're gonna beat them.' And I think this year was the first time that I felt this energy throughout the whole entire team—like there was no doubt that we were ever going to lose today.
“And to beat them on a field that they are undefeated on, their first loss in the ACC since 2017? I mean, it's an amazing feeling. It's an amazing feeling, for me, who's been in the program for five years, for [fifth-year Tess Boade], for [fifth-year Lily Nabet], and now the freshmen who know what it feels like to beat UNC. And after we won, I said, 'There's a new era, and it's a Duke era.' And I never want to go back.”
The fourth-ranked Blue Devils beat the second-ranked Tar Heels 1-0, their first win in the Tobacco Road rivalry since 2015. Duke goalie Ruthie Jones’ six saves, its backline’s masterful closeouts, and Cooper’s all-around effort all helped hand North Carolina its first-ever loss at Dorrance Field. Cooper had run about a country mile in the first half before adding the 15th point of her historic freshman campaign. She’d been tasked with harassing the Tar Heel backline, mostly by herself, for the entirety of the game.
That was a necessary strategy, as the Tar Heels clearly liked what they’d seen from Stanford’s gameplan against Duke (7-0) earlier this month, as North Carolina (7-1) came out aggressively high-pressing. It worked, too; the Blue Devils had trouble sustaining any possession for the first 10 or 15 minutes.
North Carolina couldn’t keep up that energy forever, though, and the Duke defense was able to keep the Tar Heels out of the final third for long enough to push back. While the Blue Devils weren’t able to maintain long possessions until near the 60th minute, they generated a number of man-up chances in their attacking third. These mostly came the same way they’ve come all season: play between Mackenzie Pluck and Cooper and whoever was either playing the ball into them or hoping to provide the finish.
This time, however, no connections were finished, and about four one-touches and through-passes were served less than a stride long. As it always is for Duke, the margin between winning and losing to North Carolina was mere inches.
Tar Heel midfielder Libby Moore decided to hammer that home in the 20th minute. When North Carolina quickly advanced possession up the left sideline, the Blue Devils defense over-rotated, and in attempting to correct, ended up with two centre backs on the Tar Heels’ striker and none on Moore on the right wing. Two passes took the ball to her, as she settled and fired a high crossing shot that looked perfect off her foot—until Duke goalie Ruthie Jones got a hand on it. Jones needed every inch of her wingspan to deflect a bullet with her wrong hand.
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North Carolina’s ensuing corner kick nearly resulted in a Blue Devil own goal when the ball took some funny English off centre back Katie Groff’s arm. But once again, Jones was there.
“I think that's just a situation where stuff hits the fan and it's just sort of [an] emergency save, like you just got to do what you got to do. I think it was a turning point,” said Jones. “That's the closest they got, I feel like. And the fact that we were able to get out of that—even though it wasn't perfect, it was a little messy and kind of chaotic—we got out of it and that's really all that matters at the end of the day.”
The second half required as many theatrics from Jones. The period started with the same hyperactive Tar Heel high press as the first, and a Baleigh Bruster knee injury four minutes into the period allowed them to reset their energies. Duke holding mid Lily Nabet provided some dire interceptions around the 50th minute, and Caitlin Cosme misjudged a header in Duke’s box around the same point; any of those could’ve reversed the final score, but Jones and the surrounding Blue Devil defensive talent proved too much for the Tar Heels to break.
That was the last gasp for North Carolina’s high press, and once Duke broke through down the left wing, the Tar Heels had only low-percentage chances on goal until the buzzer.
The Blue Devils were able to continue pressing, but North Carolina goalie Claudia Dickey put on a masterclass of her own, closing angles away from Duke attacks and making each one of her three saves highlight-worthy.
But the amount of possession the Blue Devils were finally able to muster in those last 30 minutes were enough to keep the Tar Heels back all the way till the end of regulation. And when that buzzer cathartically sounded, Duke went into a frenzy. Jones leaped, and was mobbed by her fellow goalies. Cooper ran to the North Carolina student sideline and cupped her ear towards them.
“As soon as we walked out the locker room to warm up, we hear the boos, we hear the thundersticks. And all of us are smiling, and we're like, ‘Wow, this is awesome. We love this atmosphere. We love how everyone in the stadium for the most part hates our guts. 'Cause it's that much sweeter when we beat them,’” Cosme said. “And honestly, I think in past years, we've let the crowd kind of shake us up and and scare us a little bit. And I think this year, we kind of fed off of it and it worked out.”
And in the end, for the first time in the history of Dorrance Field, the team in away colors was the last one standing.