With the weather a breezy 74 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun still shining as kickoff commenced Sunday evening, the Blue Devils marched into TCU's Garvey-Rosenthal Stadium ready to set their momentous season back on an upward trend. With a TCU-record 3,648 fans in attendance and plenty more Horned Frog faithful clad in purple standing around the gates of the field, the pressure was on.
But the second-ranked Blue Devils came forth as anything but incapable of notching their fifth win of the season 3-1. The team traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, for a Sunday night matchup against No. 6 TCU in its first contest after a narrow loss to UCLA Thursday night. Each time the TCU offense called Sunday, the Duke defense answered, and in the end, the Blue Devils were the ones with the sun still shining on them.
"We played hard, we defended well, we defended together," head coach Robbie Church said after the game. "We didn't have the ball as much as we wanted to. But our heart was really, really big. Our girls were determined after Thursday, dropping the game at UCLA, that we were going to have a good performance tonight. ... Getting the win is the most important thing, especially getting a win in front of a record crowd on the road."
Determination being the name of the game, TCU's Camryn Lancaster returned to the field in the second half prepared to rally a comeback. With the Blue Devils (5-1) up 1-0 and the Horned Frogs (3-2-1) struggling to score on senior goalie Ruthie Jones, Lancaster and teammate Seven Castain needed to utilize some strategy. Castain passed a deceivingly short corner kick to Lancaster, and the Horned Frogs gained essential momentum toward the goal.
In a matter of seconds, the forward beat out a Duke defense that had already shut down TCU shots seven times. In the end of what was a beautiful play, Lancaster beat out graduate midfielder Mackenzie Pluck in a single move and found an open spot toward the net. But it wasn't enough.
Jones' head remained on a swivel and her reaction time resisted any motion besides the ball moving around her. Lancaster's shot was the closest of the eight attempts her team had to tie the game at that point. Yet, in the end, the Blue Devil goalkeeper pushed it out of the path and away from the goal.
"My mindset in those situations is to just stay ready and [have] trust in my training and just do what I can to help my team," Jones said. "But to be honest, the defenders in front of me made it super easy for me tonight."
Around three minutes into the contest, sophomore forward Michelle Cooper helped set that tone.
As the ball moved back and forth from Duke's side to the Horned Frogs', there was plenty of movement in the Blue Devil penalty box. But with quick action from a Delaney Graham kick, within seconds, the Blue Devils turned toward the opposite side of the grass.
The IMG Academy product beat out TCU to receive and keep possession despite defenders being on her back. And though she didn't score, as TCU midfielder Chaylyn Hubbard blocked the shot, Cooper carried the momentum of that first shot through the whole game.
Seven minutes later, Cooper tallied the matchup's first goal in the 10th minute. Struggles on the Horned Frogs' end led to a pass deflected toward Duke's defending midfielders. Junior midfielder Nicky Chico caught wind of the ball and saw Cooper for the outlet, which she converted on by outrunning the TCU defense like a lightning bolt. Even TCU goalie Lauren Kellett had no time to react. Just seven seconds after receiving the ball, Duke led.
"We had great transition," Church said. "Where [Cooper] did a great job in transition and catching then scoring goals. Kat [Rader] also catching them in transition [and scoring]."
Cooper ultimately scored Duke's second goal nearly eight minutes into the second half, advancing the Blue Devil lead to 2-0. Seven minutes later, Rader added the third score with assists from freshman midfielder Devin Lynch and Cooper.
The Horned Frogs' Lauren Memoly would finally get her team a goal in the 67th minute. But with the collaboration of Cooper's accuracy and speed, along with stellar defensive performances from Jones and the Blue Devil back line, Duke proved that it, as the record-setting crowd and four TCU yellow cards imply, is the team everyone wants to see tested. Passing that test shows that the Blue Devils may have what it takes to be the best.
"I thought we handled it really, really well," said Church. "Nothing better than to come and win on somebody else's home field with a huge crowd. So I'm really proud of our young ladies."
The Blue Devils return to battle at Koskinen Stadium against rival North Carolina Thursday at 8 p.m.
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