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Duke women's soccer falls to Santa Clara in Elite Eight of NCAA tournament

<p>The Blue Devils struggled to finish against Santa Clara. (Photo credit: Brian Westerholt/Sports On Film)</p>

The Blue Devils struggled to finish against Santa Clara. (Photo credit: Brian Westerholt/Sports On Film)

Two years ago, at Koskinen Stadium, the beleaguered Blue Devils had a signature win against then-No. 19 Santa Clara, breaking a long streak of Bronco overtime wins. Santa Clara didn’t forget about that.

Friday night, it finally got its revenge, handing Duke's its first season-ending loss in Durham since 1997.

With a trip to the College Cup on the line, the unranked Broncos took down No. 1 Duke at Koskinen Stadium 2-1 Friday. Santa Clara struck twice in the mid-first half, and a barrage of Duke close calls in the late second wasn't enough to close the gap. The Blue Devils were upset in the NCAA tournament for just the fourth time in the past 21 years, losing as a seeded team to an unseeded squad for the first time since 2005.

“We've got such a good record at Koskinen—regular season, NCAA tournament-wise. We take pride in playing at home,” said head coach Robbie Church.  “We worked hard to get that home-field advantage during the season. Won a lot of big games to get that home-field advantage, and to end up finishing the journey here, it was very difficult. So yeah, it just stings more.”

The first entry into a box of the game had come courtesy of the Blue Devils, when attacking mid Tess Boade intercepted an errant pass in the Bronco half, and drove toward the opposing goal. Striker Michelle Cooper flanked her in the heavily disadvantaged attack, although she was nearly able to cross off the secondary action.

The near-goal foreshadowed the rest of the evening.

Eighty seconds into the second half, Duke got closer to scoring than at any point in the first half. Boade caught a ball in the thick of Santa Clara’s midfield, and chipped it ahead to Cooper, splitting the Bronco centre backs. The pass was right on the money, and as Cooper played into it, she ran into the outstretched leg of Santa Clara centre back Marisa Bubnis. The leg earned a yellow card, but turned a Cooper one-on-one into a set piece from 30 yards out. The Blue Devils formed their usual set-up, and decoyed centre back Caitlin Cosme by kicking it aside to fellow centre back Katie Groff. But Groff was too far off the ball, and the entire set was tackled away.

Duke had plenty of other chances in the early second half. In the 49th minute, a crosser found wing back Delaney Graham in the box in midair, but was kicked over and out. In the 53rd, wing back Olivia Migli charged down the left side of the box, and shot across the face of the goal, just barely missing the far post. Three minutes later, Jones tried to play ahead to Cooper, but the grounder dribbled wide left. Another three after that, attacking mid Grace Watkins had an opening on a blind turnaround shot, but yanked it wide.

The Blue Devils finally got a break in the 61st minute. On a pinball in the box, midfielder Sarah Piper—making her first appearance in a close game since 2019—fought a Bronco centre back for a header, and helped get the ball upfield. The ball reached Migli, who shot it just high enough that it bounced off goalie Kylie Foutch’s fingertips and dribbled past the goal line to cut the deficit in half.

The Blue Devils kept up their early second-half pace in the waning minutes of the second half. In the 71st minute, Graham fought for a play-ahead right outside the goal area, and Santa Clara centre back Alex Loera’s defense against her could’ve resulted in a Duke penalty kick. The Blue Devils had another set piece 35 yards out in the 76th minute; Cosme took that one herself, but once again, the shot flew wide left. Piper and Migli both came inches away from converting  the equalizer in the 80th.

But Santa Clara, a team known over the years for its extraordinary offenses, held steady at the goal line when necessary.

“Second half, we tried to play behind them a little bit more,” said Church. “We tried… [to] almost try to create chaos a little bit. Try to win first balls, second balls. It worked on the first goal. And then a number of times [for a] second goal. If we tried to play in front of them, they stepped really hard, they closed us down really hard. They took Michelle out of the game a lot. There's some areas and some things that we didn't do well. I guess that's about it.”

The Blue Devils were able to advance to their forwards more often than the Broncos, but Santa Clara’s backs proved arduous to pass by. Part of that difficulty came from Duke keeping its three centre backs behind the center line during attacks, where they’d normally push closer to the top of the center circle. Having those players spaced at midfield allowed the Blue Devils to stay aligned against Bronco counters, despite Duke’s wing backs playing further upfield than usual. But when Santa Clara came off of a missed Duke crosser and pushed into transition, the Blue Devil centre backs were overplaying the wrong side of the field. The ball found Bronco midfielder Skylar Smith in the box, who juked Cosme, and fired a now-open shot for the opening score.

Four minutes later, after a try into Duke’s box got headed out, Smith skied an aerial entry. Striker Kelsey Turnbow grounded it and turned to the goal in one motion, firing a bullet to the bottom of the woodwork that rebounded backwards for Santa Clara to go up 2-0 in the 29th minute. Turnbow was heavily marked by centre back Emily Rosyon, but it didn’t matter; no defense can block a perfect shot.

“I thought we played pretty well at times, and obviously had the load of possession. But that doesn't mean much with it,” said Church. “They came out and played five backs, dropping really deep, they wanted us to play in front of them. And we kind of played into their hands, especially the first half. We played into their hands. They were looking to catch us there. A few teams out there that are very comfortable without the ball, and Santa Clara is one of the teams that's comfortable without the ball.”

The Blue Devils had opportunities at the tail end of the first half, whether on aerials from 30 yards or on crossers. Yet they went into halftime with a two-goal deficit. The last time Duke gave up multiple goals and still won was its 2020 season opener, 14 months ago. It had three wins when the opponent scored at least twice in the past two years—two against Wake Forest, one against Santa Clara in 2019.

“[Our super-seniors] came back to win, and they came back to win trophies. And unfortunately, of the three trophies out there, we have none," said Church. “It's a hard emotion, because you know what they gave up, you know what they had to do to come back… And we just wanted to finish this journey in the College Cup, and unfortunately, we're not going to be able to.”

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