Come tournament season, anything can happen—it only takes a moment. On Friday night, that moment went the way of the Blue Devils.
It took until the last minute for Duke to break through, but when your opponent isn’t scoring, you only need a single goal to win. In this contest, graduate defender Caitlin Cosme was happy to provide, knocking in the winning score with just 17 seconds left in the match, securing the 1-0 win for No. 1 Duke against Old Dominion at Koskinen Stadium in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“You’re one, they’re a lower seed—they have nothing to lose, all they have to do is come out here and play as hard as they possibly can,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “And they did that. And I knew once I saw that draw that Old Dominion—because we have played [Old Dominion head coach Angie Hind] before—she was going to have her team organized, they got numbers behind the ball, they got players around the ball with it, too.”
Coming into the night, Old Dominion was riding a four-game winning streak and had just won the first Conference USA title in team history. Duke, on the other hand, hadn’t seen the field since a disappointing quarterfinal loss in the ACC tournament on Halloween. For much of the game, but especially in the first half, the Blue Devils looked more rusty than rested.
And so, despite a stronger second half and an increase in chances in the Monarchs’ third, Duke looked to be on the way to its third overtime game of the season. But then, a bit of tournament magic happened.
With just over a minute to play in regulation, Old Dominion goalkeeper Kasey Perry sent a goal kick toward center field—had the Monarchs won possession, time in regulation likely would have run out. But the Blue Devils wanted it more, beginning with graduate midfielder Lily Nabet. Nabet showed off her vertical, winning the initial ball, and managed to direct it to sophomore forward Grace Watkins. A quick flick from Watkins, and the ball was suddenly at the feet of freshman striker and ACC Freshman of the Year Michelle Cooper.
Cooper had been quiet much of the night, her touch not quite up to its usual standard, which wasn’t helped along by a stoic Monarch defense. But it was in this moment that she made her mark.
A quick run from Cooper toward the goal with defenders to her sides but none in front, forced an Old Dominion foul just outside the 18-yard box. And for the Duke fans in the stands, and for anyone who has watched Duke women’s soccer this season, a singular thought simultaneously entered everyone’s minds: “Caitlin Cosme.”
Cosme, while primarily a centre back and the lynchpin of the Duke defense, is also the Blue Devils’ set-piece scorer extraordinaire, with multiple goals this season from distance to her name. And in this moment, it was her turn once again.
“That was a blessing—that was so close to the line, I was like, ‘That's like my sweet spot’,” Cosme said. “We got lucky and I am very grateful that Katie Groff was like, ‘Okay, you take it’, because she was like, ‘Should I take it? Do you want to take it?’ I was like, ‘I'm just gonna take it. You never know what could happen.’”
But with Cosme stepping up to the ball for a free kick, you certainly have an inkling of what could happen. And, as she has throughout the past two seasons, she delivered.
With the clock still running and 20 ticks left in regulation, Cosme drove the ball toward the far post. For a fateful second, it looked like the ball could rebound away, which would have been fitting considering the fate of previous Blue Devil chances this night. But it had the angle and the height, missing the outstretched hands of the diving Monarch goalkeeper before bouncing off the far post and finally settling into the bottom left of the net—Duke had found its score. And with 16 seconds left for a struggling Old Dominion offense to find an equalizer, this one was all-but-over.
“Great playup to get the foul and then when that happened, I was like, ‘This is exactly in Caitlin's spot, this is her thing, it’s what she's been practicing’,” junior midfielder Sophie Jones said. “And the whole time, I was just trying to get the referee to stop the clock. And he was like, ‘You don't need it, you don't need it.’ I was like, ‘Ref, stop the clock’. [Then] the goal goes in. And I was like, ‘Actually, we don't need it—continue the clock, keep it running.’ [Cosme] practices [those] all the time, she's been doing it, showing up for us all year long. So I had full confidence in her and she scored another banger.”
The Monarchs didn’t come out of the gates aggressive, giving Duke more space to work with than it has been accustomed to in the past couple games. But despite the space, the Blue Devils weren’t able to take advantage and come up with an early lead. Rather, through the first 10 minutes, Duke just couldn’t seem to get going, with the team’s normally quick decisions coming to a crawl.
After the first 10, it was a Duke masterclass in how to possess the ball but not score, while holding your opponent without a shot—the Monarchs didn’t have a shot attempt after the seven-minute mark in the first half. But it was also an Old Dominion masterclass in how to take your opponent, which flourishes on its transition offense, out of its rhythm of play.
“They were physical, they broke our rhythm of play,” Church said. “And it looks like a lot of people are starting to do that, find that little formula. First half I thought it bothered us. We were tentative—we really had no really good opportunities. Second half, I though we were so much more aggressive, our mentality was much better. And it was a matter of time, it was coming.”
With the first round behind them, Duke can take a breath—its season isn’t over yet. In Duke's bracket, No. 2 UCLA and No. 4 Auburn both lost Friday and they’ll have a week of rest before taking on the winner of Memphis-LSU Friday at Koskinen Stadium.
You can be certain that, despite the thrill of winning in the waning seconds, the Blue Devils will be looking to find the back of the net earlier in the night. But in the tournament, you’ll take what you can get.
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