In front of a sold-out Koskinen Stadium—the largest home crowd in at least six years—Duke gave the Blue Devil faithful something to cheer for.
Despite kicking off the game nearly an hour later than anticipated, with the previous game on the field going into penalties before being decided, Duke warmed up quickly on a frigid night. After waiting until the waning seconds to score in their first-round NCAA tournament matchup against Old Dominion, the Blue Devils struck earlier in this one, waiting until merely the waning minutes of the first half to notch their first score. From there, the Blue Devils held on to their lead through the second half, and No. 1 Duke made its way past Memphis 1-0 at Koskinen Stadium Friday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“The game was what we thought it was gonna be—Memphis is very, very good defensively; they've only given up 10 goals all year,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “I thought [in the] first half we created good opportunities. I really liked how we came out of the locker room in the beginning of the second half, but we just could never get that second goal, so the game got a little frantic the last 20 minutes.”
After an intense first 40 minutes that featured one Memphis yellow card, at least three hard fouls from the Tigers that arguably could have been cards too and a dominant Blue Devil possession and defense, Duke looked in control but was still in search of a go-ahead goal.
Enter Michelle Cooper, the Graham sisters and a bit of role reversal.
Cooper, the ACC Freshman of the Year and Duke’s team leader in goals, found herself in more of a midfield position when she took over control of the ball. A quick run up the sideline, weaving through traffic on the way, got her to the center line, before a short pass-off to sophomore Maggie Graham. Graham found her sister Delaney up the field, splitting two defenders, and in a position more akin to that of Cooper than herself, as Delaney generally plays wingback.
Between her speed and positioning, the only Tiger that had a hope of stopping her was the goalkeeper. Unbothered, Delaney easily slotted it into the left side of the goal, giving the Blue Devils a 1-0 lead with just minutes remaining in the first, marking the first goal conceded by the Tigers in over 500 minutes of gameplay.
“It was amazing to have Maggie be the one to play me the ball,” said Delaney Graham. “I made eye contact with her [while] making that run and I knew she was gonna find me. So it was perfect.”
Despite that being the first—and only—goal in the half, it certainly wasn’t the first Blue Devil opportunity in the period. They would have struck in the first 10 minutes, had a Cooper and Tess Boade give-and-go been a little cleaner—the second touch from Cooper went just a few feet too far upfield, giving the Memphis goalie room for a save.
Four minutes later, Boade nearly made up for the previously missed opportunity, facing off against the Memphis goalkeeper in no man's land toward the side of the box. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, her cross—which would have found empty space in front of the net—petered out at the back line instead.
The rest of the first continued without much in the way of offense for the Blue Devils, save the goal and a few shots, but resulted in even less for the Tigers, who didn’t have a single shot on goal in the period.
The second half consisted of Duke holding on tight to its lead and Memphis desperately searching for the equalizer. While Duke maintained their tight hold on possession, it was the Tigers who were the aggressors on the offensive end—when they managed to pull the ball away from the Blue Devils, at least. After a first half that saw Duke beat or tie the Tigers in every major offensive category, the second half was a more balanced affair.
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But despite the parity in the box score in the second half and a number of corners from the Tigers, the Blue Devils never looked to be in danger. While they surely would have liked to add a goal or two to the score, the fact remains—you only need a single goal to win when your opponent can’t find a weak point in your defense.
With this win and the losses that occurred earlier Friday night, the Blue Devils stand as the only seeded team remaining in their quarter of the bracket, and they did it by beating a team they had never faced in program history. In the only weekend of two games, save the College Cup, Duke will have a quick turnaround, taking on St. John’s Sunday at Koskinen Stadium at 6 pm in the Sweet 16.
“I hope whatever it is—it’s in the water—it stays away,” said Church when asked about being the only seeded team remaining in their bracket. “Keep it somewhere else. It’s a crazy tournament. There's been upsets all through the tournament...But all we need is one more than they have at this stage. It doesn't have to always be a masterpiece. We just have to have one more. And so now we get to meet in our team room tomorrow morning and that was our goal.”