With chaos reigning across the ACC this month, the Blue Devils’ challenge was simple: Beat Virginia, and they would control their own destiny in the fight for the conference’s regular-season championship.
Instead, the Cavaliers handed Duke its first ACC loss of 2022.
The fourth-ranked Blue Devils lost to No. 2 Virginia 1-0 Sunday, in a rain-soaked affair that was postponed from the preceding Friday due to the approach of Hurricane Ian. The match lived up to its billing, as the teams played 90 minutes of high-level back-and-forth soccer that was nearly as evenly contested as possible. Duke surrendered a 28th-minute goal to Cavalier star midfielder Lia Godfrey, but despite having more than a few quality shots at an equalizer, the Blue Devils could never find the back of the net.
“This one hurts. This one hurts,” said Duke head coach Robbie Church. “We had them on our field, we were good enough that we should have won the game, we created enough opportunities and enough chances to win the game … Especially [against] a top-five team, we cannot turn the ball over [that much] … I was proud [that] after the goal, we settled down and we created opportunities.
“We just let these people off the hook. We had this team on our field, and we were doing enough to win, but there's certain moments in a game, and we're not doing it in the final third. We had plenty of opportunities to score there.”
As has been the difference-maker in every evenly matched Blue Devil contest this year, the final score was decided by a snafu in its transition defense. With Duke (8-3, 3-1 in the ACC) holding possession on its side of the field, holding midfielder Katie Groff attempted a pass back to the center backs. But she could not pass through Cavalier forward Alexa Spaanstra, who deflected the ball to Godfrey. Godfrey took off running, while Virginia striker Haley Hopkins followed. With only Duke center back Jenna Royson between Godfrey and Hopkins and the goal area, Godfrey finished off one of the Cavaliers' easiest goals of the season.
The Blue Devils certainly had chances to tie the game up. They came closest to scoring in the late second half, starting with a pair of near-goals from junior midfielder Maggie Graham. After the Cavaliers (10-1-1, 3-1) tried to recycle a midfield possession, Duke forward Michelle Cooper knocked away a pass, the ball finding Blue Devil striker Kat Rader in space. She jump-started transition, pressed into a man-up advantage and kicked out to an open Graham on the wing. Graham shot hard to the far upper 90, but a sliding save from Virginia goalie Cayla White just barely maintained the Cavaliers' advantage. Duke midfielder Sophie Jones recycled the possession and served the ball back into the box, but another Graham shot could not get past a diving White.
Rader earned Duke’s last quality look in the 82nd minute, showing off her acumen by deking White into diving in front of the ball. But Rader's freshman inexperience came out a half-second later; having passed the goalie and standing along the goal line, with two Cavalier center backs blocking the goal, she took a shot without a viable angle instead of trying to pass back. Virginia midfielder Alexis Theoret blocked Rader's attempt and the Blue Devils would earn only one more shot before the final whistle.
Another miscalculation came early in the second half, costing Duke a chance. On one of many transition opportunities she initiated that afternoon, Cooper had an iffy look at a long unassisted shot but kicked out to Rader after drawing help. With White and the Cavalier center backs closing out, Rader’s only chance of scoring was an aerial one-touch past White. Instead, Rader tried to recycle and pass back to no one.
In the waning minutes of the first half, midfielder Grace Watkins earned some scoring looks, first beating a wingback to fire at the Cavalier goal. White deflected and nearly directed the ball right to Rader in the process. Blue Devil wingback Delaney Graham sent White’s clearance back into the box, but it sailed just a foot beyond the unmarked head of Rader.
“There was times that we could have executed and done something better. But we thought the players on the field played well at times,” said Church. “There was times we had moments, but not enough, not consistent enough. I didn’t think we counter-pressed quick enough. Our transition from offense to defense wasn’t quick enough at this level.
“God, this game hurts. This game really hurts, because we had our time and we were good enough at times to win this game. And we didn’t.”
Duke brought pressure early, most of the first four minutes keeping within Virginia’s third, but that dominance would not last. Duke was able to clear after the Cavaliers sent a few balls into its box, keeping the game in the midfield for a short period. That period wouldn’t last long either, the run of play alternating between the teams’ attacking thirds. Both had quality chances, including a Cooper isolation and a pair of Virginia transition chances that required intentional yellows from the Blue Devils to stop.
“Would we both [have wanted] to play on Friday? Yeah. Were we ready, did we have a really good week of training leading up to it? Yeah. But we both had to [adjust to the postponement]; it’s not an excuse,” said Church. “[The Cavaliers] had their moments when we turned it over, and they had a great transition, and they finished up. That’s the game when they had it. We had ours, and we just didn’t make the last pass or finish or make the right decision with it too. So it’s just very frustrating … We worked hard enough to win the game.”
Duke’s next outing comes Thursday at home against Wake Forest.
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