Starting Thursday, three of the Blue Devils’ final four regular-season matches are on the road. Before then, they made sure to defend their home.
In a high-stakes conference tilt at Koskinen Stadium, No. 7 Duke displayed a patient approach before receiving a second-half goal from junior defender Olivia Migli to down No. 13 Pittsburgh. With the 1-0 win, the Blue Devils wrestled sole possession of second place in the ACC from the Panthers and moved into a tie for first with Florida State ahead of Thursday's date in Tallahassee, Fla.
“It was a must,” Church said of defending home field Sunday and in Friday’s win against Wake Forest. “Once we lost that game to Virginia, and we felt that we played well at Virginia, we felt we deserved more for that, we had to come back and win these games. … I was really proud of the girls.”
Outside of senior midfielder Anna Bout’s three first-half shots and the first corner kick of the match, the Panthers had few chances early Sunday. Heading into the final 45 minutes, the Blue Devils (10-3, 5-1 in the ACC) certainly appeared to have the edge, but it was the Panthers (11-3, 4-2) who came out of the break rolling, quickly earning a pair of corner kicks and putting Duke on its heels.
That pressure didn’t last long for Pittsburgh. Less than 10 minutes into the half, sophomore forward Michelle Cooper turned in the midfield amid a crashing defense and played a wide-open Migli along the left wing. Migli took her space, sprinting toward the box and firing a ball across the middle that would ricochet directly off of Pittsburgh defender Ashton Gordon and across the goal line, ending the stalemate and giving the Blue Devils the lead for good.
“I had tons of space, and kind of just saw the goal and thought I’d take a shot,” Migli said. “And luckily it took a good bounce and went in.”
“Second half, I thought we came out and played really well for a while,” Church said. “We scored the goal, but we’re looking for that second goal, that goal that would really break their spirits a little bit, and right now we’re having a hard time finding that.”
The Panthers were unable to put together a truly threatening sequence for much of the second half after Duke seized control, but the final 10 minutes took a turn as the visiting side upped the pressure in desperation.
With less than three minutes in the match, senior midfielder Landy Mertz got her head on the ball right in front of the net for what seemed destined to be the Panthers’ much-needed equalizer. It was not to be: Mertz’s header bounced off of the crossbar and straight to teammate Samiah Phiri, whose own header found the top of the woodwork as well. The impossibly close chance was Pittsburgh’s last, as the Blue Devils slowed things down from then on to clinch a second-straight win on their home field.
“Obviously, you have a typical soccer game, team up by one, gets late in the match, they start pushing everybody forward, push numbers forward, knock two off the crossbar,” Church said. “So we’re fortunate in that area. But I thought that there was some really good signs from us, but we still got a lot of work to do.”
One game after taking the lead in the third minute against Wake Forest, the Blue Devils got off to a far more patient start Sunday against the Panthers. Both sides worked their way up to eventual pressure late in the first half by primarily building out of the back early, with Duke using 16 players before the break.
Duke’s opportunities came in bunches leading up to halftime, with Cooper serving as the main catalyst for the majority of those chances. In the 22nd minute, she set up the Blue Devils’ first shot of the match, turning toward the box and threading a pass toward net for Mackenzie Pluck. Pittsburgh goalkeeper Caitlyn Lazzarini was quick to react, though, and reached the ball before Pluck could truly control it.
That moment kicked off a stretch quietly dominated by the Blue Devils, who came close to breaking the scoreless draw often until the halftime whistle. On the half’s final true possession, Cooper nearly put Duke on the board, firing a straightaway left-footed shot from well beyond the box. The leaping Lazzarini was there again, cutting off the shot and cementing the scoreless tie through 45 minutes of play.
“The first half, we [were not] overly sharp,” Church said. “We rushed some balls, technically we broke down.”
Duke senior goalkeeper Ruthie Jones recorded two saves and stood tall down the stretch on her way to a sixth clean sheet this fall. The Blue Devils controlled possession for 60% of the game and put together a clean performance on the defensive end, ensuring a fairly easy day for their captain in net.
Next, the Blue Devils travel to Florida State with a chance Thursday to take over the top spot in the ACC standings.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.