CARY, N.C.—After a long and winding road, Duke was at the ACC Championship. However, not all roads end at the destination you want, and despite putting their best foot forward, the Blue Devils ultimately couldn’t raise the trophy.
Through 90 minutes of an evenly-matched, back-and-forth battle at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., Duke fell to Notre Dame 2-0 and despite the roar of Duke fans who’d made the 30-minute trip to support, it was the Fighting Irish who were crowned champions.
“We were doing everything in our power to be ready and prepared and use [the game] as a massive moment for our program, and, the players did everything right,” head coach John Kerr said after the game. “We encouraged them to be courageous and brave and take chances...We just didn't get that final pass right.”
The first sign that this game might not end in Duke’s favor was when Notre Dame jumped out to an early lead, as graduate student Dawson McCartney scored a goal in the fifth minute. The goal came after the Fighting Irish generated some quick pressure, and, after the Blue Devils turned the ball over in the midfield, McCartney got a wide open look as he carried the ball towards the box. It was clear then that Duke would have an uphill battle to climb if they wanted to bring home the trophy.
The Blue Devils were up to the challenge, though, and in the 65th minute, Duke got their best chances of the day, as Antino Lopez carried the ball into the box and multiple Blue Devils got touches in search of an opening. From that moment, there was a whole new Duke team on the field and it was a whole new ball game, this time one that the Blue Devils were setting the pace of. The hunger and energy that the Blue Devils had lacked in the first half was suddenly out in full force, and it felt Duke was teetering on the edge of a goal.
“We gave a goal up early, which caused us to chase the game, and we weren't that aggressive in the first half, but I thought our aggressiveness changed at halftime,” Kerr said. He elaborated that he told them at halftime to be brave and, “carry the ball forward and create some openings [and] commit their defenders,” adding that he thought they were successful in that respect.
The goal that would come would not be a Duke one, however, as the Fighting Irish got a rare, lucky chance off a throw-in near the end of the field and McCartney, the ACC tournament MVP, notched his second of the night. With just 12 minutes left in the game, the Blue Devils would need a miracle to take home a victory.
The team that rebounded from a 4-10-3 season and made it all the way to the conference championship couldn’t scrounge up any more magic, however, and made the trip home without having scored a goal. Still, the Blue Devils had much to be proud of, as they made Notre Dame’s championship as difficult to obtain as they could.
Throughout much of the day, the Blue Devils were able to maintain possession and move the ball up the field while keeping Notre Dame from getting any dangerous chances. While Duke got off to a slow start, once it was in full gear it was able to put constant pressure on Notre Dame, outshooting the Fighting Irish 13-11 as a result. Still, Notre Dame’s defense stood strong and contained the aggressive press that has become Duke’s trademark over the season.
“They're organized. They're huge. They take up a lot of space. They're sharp,” Kerr said of Notre Dame’s defense. “They’re known for their defending.”
With the ball tied up around center for much of the first half, the play of midfielders like sophomores Peter Stroud and Santa Ihara shined. Almost all of Duke’s possessions ran through them, and they were able to move the ball into Notre Dame’s end quickly and with relative ease. Stroud, who was named ACC Midfielder of the Year on Wednesday and made the All-Tournament team as well, led the Blue Devils throughout, and his persistence and skill helped the Blue Devils to turn the game around and out play the Fighting Irish in the second half.
Defensively, senior center back Ian Murphy excelled against the zealous Fighting Irish. Seemingly everywhere on the field, Murphy was always in the right spot to challenge opposing attackers and keep them from making a push in the final third. Strong on the ball, strong on his man and able to kickstart offensive drives, the senior was maybe the largest contributor to Duke’s valiant, but ultimately fruitless, performance.
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“[Murphy] has had a great tournament. We need him to step up, because him and Lewis are the cornerstone of our backline, and they've had a great season together. They've worked really well together…[Murphy] continues to to impress me all season long, and I know he's gonna have a strong [NCAA] tournament,” Kerr said.
In addition to Stroud, sophomore Thorleifur Ulfarsson and freshman Shakur Mohammed, ACC Offensive Player and Freshman of the Year, respectively, were also named to the All-Tournament team. The forward duo, despite being unable to finish, were unwavering in their efforts to out-work and out-maneuver a superb Notre Dame backline, and Mohammed finished with the most shots of anybody on the field.
What ended up deciding the game, then, as Duke revved up into dominant form, was the fact that it had to rev up at all. The Fighting Irish came out flying, playing with a chip on their shoulder as they fought for their program’s first tournament championship. Even though Duke ultimately showed why they were a top seed in the tournament, those early chances for Notre Dame and that early goal proved insurmountable.
Still, the Blue Devils’ season isn’t over, as they are sixth nationally in RPI and almost guaranteed to be a top-16 seed in the NCAA tournament, thus receiving a first-round bye. As the team looks at that as their next steps and dusts the dirt of this game off their shoulders, they know they can build on this performance and continue what has, in spite of the championship loss, been an incredibly successful season.
“We've done so well this year that we’ve put ourselves in a really good spot...I think having this experience is only going to help you, even though it hurts. It's going to sharpen our mind and [help us] understand a little bit more what we need to do as we head into the NCAA tournament,” Kerr said.
Duke will find out its tournament seeding Monday at 1 p.m. and will likely play again next Sunday. With this learning experience under their belt, the Blue Devils hope to rebound and keep their season going.
Sasha Richie is a Trinity junior and the Blue Zone Editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.