In the grand scheme of things, Duke’s visit to Winston-Salem, N.C. was little more than a tune-up. And the Blue Devils found all their parts in good working order.
No. 8 Duke maintained its sterling defensive prowess in its 2-0 win over Wake Forest on Friday, while executing a Florida State-esque smothering, possession-heavy offense for the first time this year. The Blue Devils allowed just a single shot on goal, as the Demon Deacons struggled to even force Duke (10-2-1, 4-2-1 in the ACC) out of their own third.
“Scoring goals is not easy. It's not easy,” said Duke head coach Robbie Church. “The second goal we scored, that one Tess scored — what a great ball Pluck played across the field. Unbelievable. Opened up the field and Tess did her thing and just beat the defender, and what a gorgeous strike in the back of the goal… We're really happy. I'm really happy.”
That’s a blueprint the Blue Devils won’t be able to implement against No. 17 Notre Dame and No. 1 Florida St. next week, but the overall skills demonstrated against Wake Forest (12-3-0, 4-3-0 in the ACC) are what will need to manifest to notch crucial wins in the coming weeks.
As recently as one week ago, the Blue Devils seemed longshots to make the ACC Tournament. With the conference reducing the number of qualifying teams from eight to six this year, good teams can no longer just beat up on the conference’s lesser squads, add a couple better wins, and make the tournament. And Duke headed into last weekend on the path to finish seventh in the ACC.
There are two key reasons why the once-No. 2 team in the country might miss its own conference tournament:
No good team in the ACC drew as short a stick in their conference schedule as the Blue Devils; while the sequencing of its home and away games isn’t as offensive as it’s been in recent years, it’s who Duke plays that’s harsh.
Given that there’s 14 ACC teams and they all play ten conference games, each school has three other teams it doesn’t play in a given year. This year, the Blue Devils avoid Clemson, Boston College, and Miami. Their combined conference record to date? 5-14-0.
What about for the teams likely to finish ahead of Duke in the standings? (Remember: these are the combined records that these teams get to avoid. Better records mean easier schedules.)
Florida State: 13-8-0
Notre Dame: 10-8-2
North Carolina: 7-14
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Suffice it to say that Duke drew the shortest straw.
Missing key players in key games
Coming off their historic win in Chapel Hill, the Blue Devils had a strong chance to beat now-No. 2 Virginia for the first time in four years. But Michelle Cooper and Olivia Migli were ruled out on account of health and safety protocols, leaving Duke without arguably its second-best player, as well as an excellent two-way wing back. The Blue Devils dropped that close one, and failed to break a tie with Virginia Tech a couple days later.
When Cooper and Migli finally returned to the lineup against N.C. State, they had just a couple days of practice under their belts; the Wolfpack stole a golden goal in the waning seconds.
Duke missing wins by being significantly below full strength is one thing, but doing so to teams above them in the standings is another. Flip the Duke-Virginia result, and the Blue Devils most likely conference finish would be second; change just their results against either Virginia Tech or N.C. State to a win, and they’re a shoo-in for third.
Make all three of those games Blue Devil victories, and their Oct. 24 showdown with Florida State would effectively decide the regular-season title.
What Duke’s discrepancy between talent and conference standing meant was that it’s been needing a little help to reach the ACC tournament. Coming into this past Sunday, the Blue Devils basically needed Notre Dame to lose to Clemson, as well as to Virginia later this month. Either that; or Duke itself would need to beat Florida St.; or North Carolina or Virginia Tech had to get upset at some point.
Which is how last Sunday, in the span of six hours of real time and almost eight of game time, Duke’s hopes went from dour to dire to blight, then rinsed and repeated.
First, N.C. State went into Louisville, K.Y. and jumped out to a 2-0 lead that would hold through the buzzer; despite cutting the deficit in the second half, the Cardinals never looked a similar quality to the Wolfpack. As that finished, North Carolina was forced into extra time by the yet-winless-in-conference-play Boston College. Seven-and-a-half minutes into overtime, the Tar Heels notched the golden goal.
Duke’s expected victory over Pittsburgh that afternoon prevented disaster, as Clemson and Notre Dame entered their second half. The Fighting Irish had opened the scoring midway through the first period, but the Tigers equalized in the second, and that score held through regulation.
Now, a Notre Dame-Clemson tie would put Duke in a favorable position in the standings. And as those teams finished the first overtime period tied, it looked like the Blue Devils might cash in on their lottery ticket — even more so as the second overtime period kept scoreless. In the 106th minute, however, the Irish connected on a header off a free kick. Duke’s fleeting hopes were crushed.
Enter Virginia Tech-v.s.-Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons scored two minutes into the game, then extended the lead via penalty. Nine minutes later, Hokie striker Tori Powell finished a crosser to put one on the board, but Virginia Tech allowed another penalty score just four seconds before the half. Seventeen seconds past halftime, Powell connected on her brace, and later tied it up for a hat trick. Just three minutes after that one, Wake Forest retook the lead — for good.
So after the Blue Devils’ best hope faded with Clemson’s loss, the Demon Deacons’ upset win put Duke on the inside track to the ACC tournament: barring significant upsets around the conference, the Blue Devils ought to finish with 19 points, two ahead of the Hokies for the final spot in the conference tournament.
The one thing Duke needs to all-but-clinch that bid? A win against Notre Dame, this Thursday at Koskinen Stadium.
“We really needed this [win over Wake Forest],” said Duke center back Emily Royson. “I know we just came off of a 5-0 win from Pitt, but we kind of went downhill at the UVA game, and then Virginia Tech. But we really needed this big win to boost us up in the standings in the ACC.”