One of the comforting things about life is that most of its greatest mysteries will inevitably be solved. “Whatever happened to Amelia Earhart?” She probably crash-landed near Kiribati. “Why is the sky blue?” Because blue light stays in the atmosphere the longest. “When is a door not a door?” When it’s ajar.
Another mystery emerged Thursday night: How did Duke pull off the win?
According to the final score, the fifth-ranked Blue Devils recorded their first ranked win of the season, besting No. 22 Tennessee 3-2 after falling behind 2-0 and not finding the back of the net until the 69th minute. According to the game film, Duke benefited from officials missing what would have been a Volunteer goal, but the team also turned down quality attacks in the closing minutes in favor of protecting its lead. According to wingback Delaney Graham, it’s simply that the better team won.
“I was really pissed off. I knew that we shouldn't be losing—Tennessee is a good team, but I think we're much better,” said Graham. “And so I used that anger and frustration to fuel me a little bit, and I find that when I do that, I'm able to play a lot more aggressively.”
Graham’s aggression kick-started the Blue Devil comeback, pressuring down the right wing and forcing a pair of corner kicks. The second broke through with a bit of luck as center back Katie Groff put a weak header on the service and striker Kat Rader gently adjusted its flight path. The Volunteer center backs and goalie Lindsey Romig didn’t seem to anticipate the change, and the shot ricocheted off of them—and finally Blue Devil midfielder Sophie Jones—to put Duke on the board.
The Blue Devils missed a chance at the equalizer just minutes later, when three unmarked players surrounded Romig on a long second-chance service after a corner. Sophomore striker Michelle Cooper knocked the ball around as Romig went to the ground, but it bounced right back to her. Cooper didn’t miss moments later, out-sprinting two Tennessee center backs to a ball one had accidentally headed backward. Cooper got to it a split-second before Romig, and shot it past her to tie the game at 2-2.
By that point, the Volunteers had clearly used up their wind pushing the pace early. After an eight-minute scoring drought, the Blue Devils just beat the Volunteers to their spots in the midfield and cut into passing lanes to start a counter. Cooper got the ball just past the center circle, seven Tennessee players standing between her and goal, and Graham jogging up the right wing. By the time Cooper's through pass found Graham midway up the box, Rader and Romig were the only players nearby. Graham crossed, and Rader slapped a weak-footed, inside-out finish for the game-winner.
“I just wanted to come in and have as big an impact as I can,” said Rader. “Every single game and every moment that I have on the field, we're building more chemistry.”
But the “game-winning” part of that goal almost never was.
In the 35th minute, Duke center back Baleigh Bruster was left one-on-one against Volunteer midfielder Maria Nelson after an unsuccessful clear. Nelson crossed the ball to Tennessee forward Kameron Simmonds, who redirected it. Duke goalie Ruthie Jones got a foot on the ball to slow it down, and wingback Olivia Migli cleared it—after the ball had apparently crossed the goal line. Simmonds immediately began celebrating what would have been her first-career goal, but no whistle sounded. Had Simmonds played on, she likely would have seen Migli’s clearance come right to her, and would have had another open shot to increase Tennessee’s 1-0 lead.
The teams played on, though the fans were vocal in their displeasure after Regal Soccer Stadium showed the replay.
“Should have [been 2-0]—was,” Tennessee head coach Joe Kirt said at halftime to the SEC Network's Mike Watts. “Was 2-0, Mike, but that’s okay, you saw it.”
Throughout the first half, it was as if the Blue Devils were waiting for the Volunteers to make a mistake instead of capitalizing on advantages. Duke’s attack repeatedly passed straight into defenders and was disorganized, while Tennessee’s extreme pace and spacing caught the back line out of position. That reached a head in the 26th minute when Volunteer star striker Jaida Thomas split a pair of retreating center backs to one-touch a long pass for the opening score.
“No question, too much transition—we played into Tennessee’s hands,” Church told the SEC Network at halftime. “We did a much better job after the goal of setting the ball down… but we gotta do a better job of finishing.”
Whatever Church may have told the team at halftime, it didn’t produce immediate results. The Volunteers managed two shots from just outside Duke’s box in the first minute of the second half and took ownership of Duke’s third shortly thereafter. Graham managed a couple of impressive tackles to stave them off, but the third time was the charm: Reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Taylor Huff crossed in a decent ball, and unmarked Tennessee wingback Claire Rain secured Tennessee’s second goal.
Thomas nearly tallied an equalizing brace late. In the 82nd minute, she split a back line mixed up in transition and got inside the box unmarked for a one-touch that hit woodwork. A minute later, Thomas got a deep one-on-one against Blue Devil center back Emily Royson. Thomas got the ball mere inches too deep for anything more than a shallow cross to no one.
Tennessee notched a few more chances against the Duke defense, but Jones, Graham or a holding midfielder was there to clear each time.
“There’s so much stuff for us to work on. My god, there’s so much,” said Church. “We are still a long ways [away], but we grew up tonight. You cannot replace the character of the group… It was crazy! And we're very, very, very, very happy to win. And that's gonna go a long way to help grow us up—but, man, we've got so much work.”
The Blue Devils’ work continues Sunday at 6 p.m. against Charlotte at Koskinen Stadium.
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