Despite finishing the regular season with the best record in the ACC, Duke has been an underdog all year after finishing with a 4-10-3 record last season.
The great thing about underdog stories is that they don’t usually end early—the Blue Devils are no exception.
Through 90 minutes of toil and trouble, battling against a hungry Clemson team at Historic Riggs Field in Clemson, S.C., Duke ultimately bested the Tigers 1-0 Wednesday in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, earning its first bid to the ACC Championship game since 2006 and officially entering the final act of its story.
“I'm very proud of my team,” head coach John Kerr said after the game. “We're ecstatic to be in the final. It's been a long time [since] our program [got] to play in one of these big games where you can win a trophy. And our guys are amped up and excited for the opportunity, and want to bring the trophy home.”
Like any good underdog story, the Blue Devils have their cast of characters looking to prove themselves. Four of them already have in the eyes of the ACC, with sophomores Thorleifur Ulfarsson and Peter Stroud along with freshmen Shakur Mohammed and Ruben Mesalles all receiving All-ACC honors Wednesday morning. Ulfarsson, Stroud and Mohammed each received major awards, while Mesalles was named to the All-ACC Freshman Team, and each one contributed to Wednesday’s win in a big way.
Ulfarsson, newly deemed this year’s ACC Offensive Player of the Year, scored the game’s only goal on a penalty kick in the 28th minute. Duke had brought the ball across the field and was creating good pressure, when Clemson All-ACC Second Team defender Hamady Diop pushed Ulfarsson over as he was retreating from net-front traffic. Ulfarsson, never one to let a scoring opportunity go to waste, sniped the ball low-left, giving his team a one-goal lead that would ultimately carry the Blue Devils to victory.
While Duke wouldn’t get many opportunities after that, the pressure Ulfarsson and Mohammed would create throughout the night was key in giving the Blue Devil defense a break from the Tigers’ onslaught of shots. Taking their time in Clemson’s end and passing the ball around, the Blue Devils thirsted for that lead-extending goal that would never come while also being aware that controlling Clemson was their number one priority.
“When you go up a goal, things change and you know you don't have to score, you just have to make sure that you're resilient,” Kerr said.
Resilience would end up being the key to the game. Clemson brought the heat, outshooting Duke 27-4 through a combination of fast midfield play and a relentless shooting drive. However, the Blue Devils bit back, playing edgy man-to-man defense in the box that forced a vast majority of the Tigers’ shots to be nonthreatening and their just six on-frame shots to mostly fall right into the hands of Duke goalie Eliot Hamill.
Still, for much of the game it felt like it was only a matter of time before Clemson tied it up, especially as the Blue Devils racked up fouls and yellow cards like they were going out of style. Ultimately fouling the Tigers 18 times, many very near the box, while also giving up 10 corners, the Blue Devils had to be on their toes all night. Duke got somewhat lucky that Clemson mystifyingly struggled to make good use of its set-piece opportunities, but much credit needs to be given to the backline in how they stepped up to defend the Tigers’ opportunities.
“I thought [center backs] Lewis [McGarvey] and Ian [Murphy] were dynamite back there, and they had to be, because if they weren't sharp and on their game, we would have given up a goal or two,” Kerr said.
Murphy, one of just two senior starters along with Hamill, was especially dominant on ball Wednesday. Early in the season, he had seemed shaky, making mistakes here and there, but against Clemson, Murphy was a force, shutting down zealous Tigers and moving the ball up the pitch. Meanwhile, McGarvey did well in aerial battles and was particularly valuable defending the Tigers’ numerous cornerkicks.
One of the biggest difference makers, however, was sophomore Amir Daley, who moved back to right back after playing as a midfielder for a while. Clemson tended to push play to the edges of the field, but Daley and sophomore left back Antino Lopez were there to keep Clemson from making real noise around the box even if it was able to lob one in the general direction of the goal.
Ultimately, what decided the game though was Duke’s ability to weather the storm and not crack under pressure, even if at times it seemed like it was coming close. By the final few minutes, it was clear that Clemson was out of gas, and the Blue Devils closed out the game using their deep bench and kept up the energy admirably through the final buzzer.
Now, carrying that momentum to Sunday will be key, as they take on Notre Dame in the finals. The Fighting Irish handed Duke its only tie of the season, and after upsetting Pittsburgh, they will be hungry for their program’s first ACC title.
However, regardless of what happens in the final act of the Blue Devils’ underdog story—whether they bring home the trophy like the Hoosiers or fall a la Rocky Balboa—Duke has come a long way, and it can only be proud of what it has accomplished this season.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.