In their regular season finale, the Blue Devils put on a lackluster performance on the road.
For the first time since Sept. 26, Duke ventured outside of North Carolina and something in the Kentucky air just didn’t agree with them. Even before the start of kickoff, the environment was muted—it was a dreary, rainy afternoon with more clouds in the sky than fans in the stands. And while the Blue Devils’ performance mirrored that environment, the talent gap was too much for the Cardinals to overcome, and Duke came out on top with a 1-0 victory Thursday at Lynn Stadium.
There are two ways for a team to come off a big win—and there’s been no bigger one this season than Duke’s win against then-No. 1 Florida State its last time out. You either build off that victory and come out with confidence or you come out flat. The Blue Devils were the latter. And early on, despite being winless over their last five games, it looked like the Cardinals were going to take the early lead on the No. 2 team in the nation.
“The Cardinals knew this was their NCAA life and they played really well—the best I’ve seen them play,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “We were really upset at halftime—doesn't matter what the score was, but just how we approached the first half, our mentality was just not what it was last week. If we're going to be a championship team, we have to come out and really have a strong mentality. And we didn't have it in the first half—we were off a little bit [and] we never got a rhythm of play.”
Louisville came up with the first shot of the game six minutes in, but it was the run that didn’t end in a shot that was most dangerous. Around the eight-minute mark, the Cardinals caught the Blue Devil backline snoozing, creating a one-on-one opportunity between Louisville’s Delaney Snyder and Duke goalie Ruthie Jones. Then, the Blue Devils caught a break, after Snyder’s touch to maneuver around Jones broke too strong, shattering a golden opportunity for the team that has never beaten Duke (13-2-1, 7-2-1 in the ACC).
The rest of the first half saw the Blue Devils dominate possession, but struggle to break the five-person Cardinal backline and generate offensive looks. It looked like Duke would finally break through on a Michelle Cooper run at the 21-minute mark that saw the Cardinal goalkeeper come off her line, all the way out of the penalty box, leaving the net wide open. But Cooper, known for her finesse, pulled the shot wide, leaving her 10th goal of the season on the table—at least for now.
Anyone who’s watched a Duke game all season knows that Cooper is one of the most tenacious presences on the field and wouldn’t be satisfied with missing an easy goal. And, while it took longer than one would like for the lethargic Duke offense to generate another scoring opportunity, it was no surprise to find Cooper on the end of it.
In the 35th minute, a Grace Watkins pass from behind the midfield line made its way to the feet of Cooper. With just one Cardinal defender to beat, Cooper hesitated for a moment, collecting the ball, before making a strong move with her shoulder to create a couple yards of separation. The only one left to beat was the goalie, who made an aggressive run off her line, but Cooper was too quick and got the shot off without a second to spare, as the Cardinal goalie made a diving attempt at the ball. Just like that, Cooper had picked up her 10th goal of the season and finally given the Blue Devil bench something to cheer about.
“Michelle’s had a phenomenal year with us,” Church said. “She’s something we haven’t had here for the last couple years. So we find a way to win because we have that type of player. She’s mentally strong, she’s very competitive. I’m sure she’s disappointed she missed the first one, but she didn’t dwell on it. She got another opportunity 15 minutes later and was able to find the only goal of the match.”
The rest of the half continued without much fanfare. Their goal secured, all the Blue Devils needed was for the defense to hold on for their fifth straight shutout. And they were able to do just that in the second period.
The second half saw both teams come out with more energy, including the Blue Devils, whose starting trio of forwards began the latter period on the bench. Each team generated offensive looks in the half, with Duke’s best look coming in the first five minutes during an extended trip in the Louisville box when star midfielder Sophie Jones sent a ground ball wide.
The Cardinals (7-7-2, 3-6-1) had their own opportunities but each time they came close, the Duke defense, led by the play of sophomore duo Katie Groff and Olivia Migli, shut them down, en route to their 10th shutout of the season.
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“We’d love to have a masterpiece every time out, but it’s hard to have that,” Church said. “But we feel like there’s another group—the backs—really haven’t done a lot lately. They had to come up big. They stuck their foot in at the right time [and] blocked a shot with it too.”
And so, with the Blue Devils taking care of business on the road, albeit not in quite the style they may have hoped, all they could do the rest of Thursday night was wait and watch how the remaining conference games played out. Their win had cemented them as at least a top-three seed in the upcoming conference tournament but, with only the top two teams getting a bye in this year’s schedule, the evening’s matchup between No. 1 Virginia and No. 3 Florida State would be the deciding factor.
And with that game ending in a draw, securing Virginia as the top-seed and Florida State as the second, Duke remains at the third seed. The Blue Devils will take on No. 6-seed Wake Forest this Sunday in the opening round of the ACC tournament at Koskinen Stadium, where it will be the Blue Devils against the Demon Deacons on Halloween.
“All we can do is control what we can control and that was to try to get three points,” Church said. “[There were] a lot of really disappointed people and a lot of really sad faces at the end of the game. They were happy for getting 13 wins in a 16-game regular season and that schedule that we’ve played is big-time. But we’re not happy with the performance we had out there, the product that we put on the field. There’s no question we will bounce back from that.”