Michelle Cooper must have eaten her Wheaties this morning.
After struggling to score in their first round matchup against Old Dominion and failing to find a second goal despite a livelier offense in their second round matchup with Memphis, the Blue Devils finally found their feet in this one. An early barrage of shots from Cooper gave Duke an early lead and the offensive assault only continued from there, eventually ending in a 7-1 win to send the Blue Devils onto the Elite Eight for the second straight year.
“I just thought we were really, really good tonight,” said Duke head coach Robbie Church. “I thought we had a lot of energy. I thought our movement off the ball was great. I thought we had a great mentality. We attacked from the opening minute. And obviously scoring an early goal—how Michelle scored the first goal of stealing the ball and then finishing right in the corner was just such a boost, such a boost when you're the home team.”
“And you've been watching this tournament all weekend—we're the last one to play in the final 16 and there have upsets here, upsets there, penalty kicks here. It was like, ‘Okay, it's our time to go’. And I think a lot of the frustration of the last four or five games not scoring a lot of goals, not finishing came out tonight.”
It’s been a relatively quiet last few games for Cooper, with her last goal coming in Duke’s regular-season finale against Louisville. While she’d tallied assists in two of the Blue Devil’s games since then, it was a far-cry from her explosive start to her college career.
But against the Red Storm, it was all gas, no brakes from the ACC Freshman of the Year.
Less than two minutes into this one, you could tell that Cooper was playing at a different level from everyone around her. After her first shot attempt was turned away and her second, a header off a Tess Boade corner, was saved, she only ramped up her efforts.
And it paid off quickly.
Less than 30 seconds after her second shot, Cooper found paydirt. After a deflection off a St. John’s player gifted Cooper the ball outside Duke’s 18-yard box, she decided to continue her shooting streak and just take the shot. It turned out to be a good idea, as she gave the Blue Devils the lead just minutes into this one. The score also moved Cooper into a tie for the Duke freshman goal record, set by Kelly Cobb in 2011. That tie wouldn’t last long, but she’d have to wait for a teammate to score first.
Cooper took Duke’s next three shots as the Blue Devils hammered the Red Storm’s backline, but the second goal for both her and the team continued to elude them.
Fifteen minutes into the matchup, the game started to get a little chippy. It was clear that the Blue Devils were the better team, controlling the pace and initiating nearly all the offense, and the Red Storm were getting frustrated. Duke was briefly taken out of its rhythm of play, but settled back in. Starting last game, this team has improved drastically, finding its identity after a series of games where the Blue Devils didn’t look like the team that had taken down North Carolina and Florida State earlier in the season.
Twenty-five minutes in, Cooper was still searching for another goal. And in the 26th, she nearly found it—or at least came as close to an assist as you can. A Cooper shot (or pass, depending on your vantage point) deflected off a Red Storm defender in the box and landed at the feet of Tess Boade. The St. John’s goalkeeper chose wrong and dove the opposite direction and Boade walked Duke’s second goal of the night into the back of the net.
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But the first-half scoring frenzy wasn’t over yet and, once again, it was Cooper on the end of it. A fairly routine play from senior Mackenzie Pluck to junior Sophie Jones ended up at the feet of Cooper, over eight yards outside of the 18-yard box. But rather than continuing to look for the next pass, she just took the shot. And it was a bullet. The Red Storm goalie had no shot at preventing Duke’s third goal in 30 minutes; the same number of goals as the Blue Devils have scored in their last three games combined.
For Cooper, it was more than just another score to extend her team’s lead—it also secured her the freshman goal record that she had tied earlier in the night.
“I think once we got that confidence in the first goal really early [on], it lifted our spirits and we kept going and kept going,” said Cooper. “And then the second came, and the third came and I think it really helped relax the nerves for sure. Because it's a big tournament still—every opponent’s a big opponent.”
Up three goals to nil, the Blue Devils had reason to be confident considering they haven’t given up more than two goals in a game all year.
At the beginning of the second half, though, that confidence took a slight hit. An early St. John’s corner kick set the Red Storm up in their best positioning of the night. And they took advantage, knocking in a beautiful header to bring them within two scores.
For the next 15 minutes, there was still a sliver of hope for the Red Storm fans in the stands. Then, enter Mackenzie Pluck.
In a senior-to-senior connection, Pluck passed the ball to Delaney Graham in the box and, in a move very similar to one earlier in the season, Cooper dummied Graham’s ensuing pass, leaving Pluck wide-open for an easy goal.
Now, with their three-goal lead reestablished, for the rest of the night, Duke was just having fun.
“I was really, really impressed with our group after we got scored on, “ said Church. “I thought we came out of the locker really poor—and that's that's our fault—and gave up a set play goal, which I absolutely hate to see happen. We've been really, really good on set plays all year. But I thought we responded well to that.”
Duke’s Olivia Migli, a sophomore wingback, was on the verge of scoring all night, and she finally got her chance 70 minutes in. After drawing a foul inside the box, for a moment it looked like Duke head coach Robbie Church was going to have Boade take the penalty. But instead, it was Migli who stepped up the marker. She proceeded to calmly bury it for her second goal of the season and increase the Duke lead to four. But, as it would turn out, it wouldn't be her last of the night.
Ten minutes later, off a Duke corner, Migli found the back of the net again. A short deflection left her open at the top of the box and, with the confidence of a goal already under her belt this night, fired a rocket into the net.
You would think with a five-goal lead, the Blue Devils would be done. But they had one more in the tank, just seconds later.
A run from sophomore Grace Watkins set her up with an opening at the top of the box. And the way the shots were going, she must have figured there was no reason not to take it. That turned out to be a good idea, as she scored one of the prettiest goals of the night.
With their six-goal lead, the Blue Devils coasted the rest of the game, as they easily secured their spot in the Elite Eight, and both tied the record for most goals and came within one goal of tying the largest margin of victory in at least the third round in the post-tournament expansion era. The Blue Devils will continue their run at a National Championship with a quarterfinal matchup against defending-champion Santa Clara the Friday after Thanksgiving.
“We're absolutely 90 minutes from playing in the College Cup,” Church said. “And a lot of these kids have not played in the College Cup. The ones that are on the team [that have played in a College Cup] were not involved or had a big role at that time. Our three grad students—Tess, Lily, Caitlin—this is why they came back, this is why they chose to come back, to have this opportunity. So we will quickly put this [win] behind us and we will move forward.”