At Koskinen Stadium just after Thanksgiving, Duke has a lot to be thankful for, even as it heads back to the locker room for the final time this season.
Taking on No.10-seed Saint Louis in the third round of the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils scored three goals, but that wasn’t enough, as their miracle season finally ended with a 4-3 loss. Despite giving its all through every minute of the game—and the season for that matter—Duke ultimately couldn’t close out a back-and-forth battle between two very talented teams.
“I'm proud of those guys, because it's not easy to muster up the energy to fight back, especially we’re 3-1 down with two goals to get back into the game,” head coach John Kerr said after the game. “We do have that desire, that heart, that will to win, and we just came up a little bit short tonight.”
Saint Louis came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, which is to be expected from the only team in the NCAA yet to lose a game. Still, the Billikens were a force unlike what Duke saw in the second round against UCLA, and it was clear from the get-go this would be a much steeper hill to climb if the Blue Devils wanted to keep their season alive. That hill was steepened even further when Saint Louis scored the first and only goal of the first half before Duke even took a shot at the goal.
After Saint Louis' Christian Buendia launched a long ball into the box, Mason Leeth settled the ball with a quick flick of his foot out behind him, then launched the bounce with no one around him past Duke goalie Eliot Hamill. If Blue Devil faithful in the cold stands of Koskinen were still unsure of the Billikens' confidence, Leeth celebrated with a round-off backflip, and Saint Louis made it known that it meant business.
However, Duke clicked into gear after that, matching Saint Louis with four shots in the rest of the first half. And once they came onto the pitch for the second half, the Blue Devils were all firepower and aggressive press as they searched desperately for an equalizer.
“This team is going to do that no matter what; they're built to compete, and it was a thrill to see,” Kerr said of the Blue Devils’ second-half resurgence. “At halftime we had some harsh words for them, in the intermission, to make sure that they understood what was at stake and to dig deep, and they did. They dug deep we got behind another goal, we got back into it, and then we had to really fight back to get to where we were.”
The equalizer would come under 10 minutes into the half. Sophomore Amir Daley tapped the ball to sophomore Peter Stroud, who carried it into the top right corner of the box and sent a perfect cross right to the head of sophomore Thorleifur Ulfarsson. There was nothing Billiken goalie Patrick Schulte could do as Ulfarsson headed the ball into the netting with perfect timing.
Still, Saint Louis is undefeated for a reason, and it scored two unanswered goals on the counterattack, as holes opened up in the back for Duke while it pushed toward the net searching for a go-ahead goal.
Never count out the Blue Devils, though, as they were unfazed by the goals and sped their way into the Billikens’ half with a vengeance, firing off three quick shots. Despite Duke’s slow start, it finished exactly even with Saint Louis, with 14 shots apiece, and in the second half the Blue Devils were the ones controlling the pace, taking 10 shots to Saint Louis’ seven.
It was the never-quit mentality that gave Duke back-to-back goals to tie the game once more. First, a smooth finish from sophomore Nick Pariano after ACC Freshman of the Year Shakur Mohammed put a bouncing cross right in front of the net put the Blue Devils within one. Then, freshman Jai Bean, who was dominant around the box all night, tapped in another header off a free kick taken just outside the box by Pariano.
However, that celebration wouldn’t last long. A Billiken corner kick ricocheted directly at Hamill, who made the initial save but couldn’t control the rebound. Unfortunately, Duke sophomore Santa Ihara’s foot was in the perfect place for the ball to bounce off and trickle into the net. That would be the last goal scored of the game, and the Blue Devils’ season ended in heartbreaking fashion with an own goal.
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While Duke would continue to battle until the final seconds ticked off the clock, it wasn’t enough, and Saint Louis ultimately moved on in the NCAA tournament.
However, the Blue Devils’ story isn’t over. Every point scored by Duke, both goals and assists, was scored by a freshman or sophomore. Stroud and Ulfarsson, two sophomores who both received major ACC awards, connected for Duke’s critical first equalizer, and the Blue Devils’ other major awardee, Mohammed, assisted on the second equalizer. Bean, who was injured for the majority of the season and is still recovering, and Pariano, both sophomores, each scored a goal, and they both largely controlled the game in the second half to give Duke that opportunity in the first place.
“It's a thrill to coach them, and then knowing that we can learn from this and grow from this, and so many young guys coming back next year is an exciting prospect,” Kerr said of the young team.
While Duke is ending its season before it wanted to, finish its season in the third round of the NCAA tournament is an amazing turnaround from its 4-10-3 season in 2020-21. And that’s looking into the past. While they certainly didn’t play a perfect game against Saint Louis, the Blue Devils played some really good soccer until the very end, and really it could have been either team’s game. Without considering where it came from, Duke is a very good team in its own right. Even more, looking into the future, Duke still has two to three more years with its best players, and Kerr points to an exciting recruiting class as reason to be optimistic about the future.
In short, while this game and this season didn’t go quite according to plan, the Blue Devils are just getting started and are ultimately satisfied with what they accomplished this season, even if this loss leaves a bruise.
“I want us to keep growing and keep challenging ourselves individually and collectively. There's a lot more this team can do. There's a lot more things to learn and grow from and I hope it's gonna sting for a while,” Kerr said. “We reconvene in January and start working on things that we all know we can improve on, and this team will grow. It's a lot of good pieces here, and they're so young and I think this year we've really grown a lot, last year we grew a lot...So I feel that we're a program on the rise.”
Sasha Richie is a Trinity junior and the Blue Zone Editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.