A lot can change in 13 seconds. Reggie Miller could score 11 points. The universe can expand by hundreds of miles. And an entire team can go from impossibly hopeful to shell-shocked.
Just 13 seconds separated Olivia Migli's equalizer and Emily Royson’s go-ahead own-goal, in No. 3-seed Duke’s 2-1 loss to No. 6-seed Wake Forest on Sunday. The usually-well-oiled Blue Devil offense labored without attacking mid Tess Boade, who was out with an undisclosed injury, to the tune of their fifth-worst shots-on-goal percentage of the season. For the first 83 minutes, Duke got far luckier than it had any right to be; it took the Blue Devils six miraculous saves just to stay in position to tie the game. And then the universe sharply corrected itself.
“Give [Wake Forest] credit all night. They did a great job,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “They came to play. They tackled us hard early, they didn't mind taking yellow cards. They didn't mind fouling us early with it, too. They wanted us to get out of our rhythm of play. And I felt that they definitely took us out of our rhythm of play in the first half.”
2021 has been a season of crossroads for the Blue Devils. Attacking mid Mackenzie Pluck has resoundingly succeeded in positions she’d previously often come up short. Goalie Ruthie Jones’ improved positioning has ironed out her primary weakness from last year, creating an all-conference-level goalie. Utility midfielder Sydney Simmons has risen to the challenge of adding offense to her game.
Royson faced a crossroads against Wake Forest. Last year, in the waning seconds of a tied game in Tallahassee, Fla., she kicked a ball last touched by No. 1 Florida State out of Duke’s own goal line. The Seminoles scored the virtually walk-off goal on the ensuing corner kick.
Royson had already forced her way into starting on what was an elite defensive unit that season, prior to that blunder. This season, she’s established herself as one of the best young centre backs in the country—but hit a watershed on Sunday: whether she’d fixed last year’s judgement.
In the 71st minute against Wake Forest, she kicked a ball out of the Blue Devil end line that Jones could’ve saved. But the soccer gods, briefly merciful, allowed a near-miss.
But when Demon Deacon centre forward Jenna Menta rocketed a crosser from 30 yards outside Duke’s box, in an attempt solely to prevent the ball from fruitlessly rolling out for a goal kick, with Jones in perfect position to easily collect it, the gods were not so kind. When Royson sprinted in to help defend the play without seeing Jones’ positioning, the gods decided this mistake would be consequential. The outside of her foot met Menta’s ball for a bending shot that decided the game.
“[Royson] had a tough angle. And once you bend it in there like that, it's hard. It deflects,” Church said. “You try to get your body turned around, you're running in late…I've seen it at professional levels.”
Wake Forest held possession for most of the first 15 minutes, missing near-goals in the eighth, 11th, 14th and 15th minutes, including multiple plays in Duke’s goal area that required perfect positioning from Jones to stop. After their Oct. 15 match featured 90 minutes mostly consisting of Duke smothering Wake Forest in its own third, the Demon Deacons were decidedly more committed to putting pressure on the Blue Devils this go-around.
Striker Michelle Cooper finally broke through Wake’s hold in the 16th minute, for a fast break in which Pluck nearly beat four Demon Deacon defenders. The Blue Devils were able to maintain possession for another four minutes before turning it over on some frenetic action in Wake Forest's box. Cooper nearly converted another transition opportunity a few minutes later after losing Demon Deacon right wing back Ryanne Brown on a hesitation step, but Wake Forest's box defense held strong. In Duke’s next opportunity, both Cooper and attacking mid Maggie Graham passed up decent looks for extra passes that the Demon Deacons eventually turned away.
Brown’s play on the other end, however, more than made up for that lapse. She and Menta proved enough of a problem that Church flipped wing back Delaney Graham, Duke’s All-ACC-level back defender, to their side of the field. Only a couple minutes later, Demon Deacon left attacking mid Nikayla Small played in a perfect crosser that Menta one-touched to finish.
The game flow was certainly one the Blue Devils should now be accustomed to, as the first half featured 13 fouls and four yellow cards. Both teams found it hard to get into rhythms with such frequent stoppage of play, and the referee never ruled advantage, stymieing their attempts to create in transition.
That had a disproportionate impact on Duke, which relies mostly on its transition offense to score non-set-piece goals. With fewer of those opportunities for Cooper and Pluck, each of whom regularly beats multiple defenders off the dribble in a single possession, and without Boade’s ability to play off them and act as a high-pressing valve when opposing teams try long possessions, the Blue Devil offense that so easily picked through Wake Forest two weeks prior was gone.
Instead, the Demon Deacons could have three or occasionally four sets of eyes on Cooper, and overcommit to the frontside offense without worrying about a crosser to Duke’s third star on the backside. Cooper spent the first half crossing to Graham and Emmy Duerr; those crosses were replaced with tough Cooper shots in the second, after it became clear that Boade’s replacements didn’t have the same juice.
“[Injuries] happen this time of year. Other players have to step up, your team has to step up to the plate, they have to play without those players,” Church said. “But I think it just throws you, because Michelle and Tess play so well off of each other—so well off of each other… Maggie, who stepped in, I thought did a nice job. But she's not Tess. And she's got a different skillset than Tess does. And we missed that skillset of Tess.”
The loss not only ends the Blue Devils’ ACC season, but sends their NCAA tournament seeding into limbo. With No. 1 Virginia and 2-seed Florida State likely having already locked up national one-seeds, had Duke beaten the Demon Deacons as expected, it’d be clear favorites for the third top seed. Had they then beaten Florida State again in the ACC semifinals, it’d be guaranteed.
Now, they might’ve fallen behind No. 4 Arkansas, and are going to be adjudicated against No. 5 UCLA if it wins the Pac-12 and No. 6 Rutgers and its ongoing perfect Big 10 season. Duke will find out what the selection committee decides next Monday.
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