Last year, Duke took 206 minutes to net its first four NCAA tournament goals. Saturday night, the Blue Devils reached that mark in less than a third as much time.
No. 2-seed Duke beat Radford 4-0 at Koskinen Stadium to open the 2022 NCAA tournament, its seventh NCAA win by at least four goals in its last 10 postseasons. The Blue Devils nearly broke the game open on a pair of chances just five minutes in, but took another 20 minutes to get on the scoreboard—but once they started scoring, they couldn’t stop: Duke recorded all four of its goals within a 40-minute span, and forward Michelle Cooper nearly added two more. She finished with two goals and an assist, while striker Kat Rader and wing back Elle Piper recorded the other two scores. By full time, every healthy Blue Devil had seen the pitch (Grace Waktins and Julia Hannon were injured, while freshman Carina Lageyre has been shut down for the season with a reaggravated hamstring injury, head coach Robbie Church told The Chronicle).
“I thought we played well. I thought it was a pretty good, it felt like a professional [game],” said Church. “I think we had a good mindset coming out to it. I felt that we executed our game plan … And as the game went on, we just kept pushing them back and back. … We’re very happy to be one of the 32 teams left.”
Radford challenged the Blue Devils from the kickoff, not only man-marking their front five (the three forwards and two wing backs), but holding its defensive shape and applying ball pressure well enough to force Duke into long build-ups. The Blue Devils held possession in either the midfield or their attacking third for over two-thirds of the match—which is an excellent rate, but one which meant that Duke could not score out of transition as it prefers.
“I think it was good [to be forced to build up],” said Cooper. “I think we were able to face new things; man-marking [is something] we’ve never faced before. And it gave us a lot of room for creativity. We were able to try new things and learn new interchanges. So that's going to be huge for us going forward.”
With Duke getting more comfortable working through the Highlanders’ deep defensive shape, the Blue Devils found their counterstrikes getting closer and closer to the goal line. In the 25th minute, Emily Royson initiated their best one. The center back passed a tackled ball past the midfield to Cooper on the left sideline, who steadied, juked a defender and rocketed a pass to Rader at the penalty spot. Rader boxed out her marker, corralled the pass and one-touched a turnaround shot past Radford goalkeeper Jordan Phillips to open the scoring.
Duke kept the heat on from there, holding the Highlanders to just one more possession in the Blue Devils’ half. That pressure led to its second goal as well, when Cooper blasted a one-toucher to the back corner of the net after a failed clearance from a Radford center back—the tenth-straight Duke goal scored by one of Cooper or Rader.
“That second goal that [Cooper] scored? A cracker,” said Highlander head coach Ben Sohrabi. “We didn't do a good job of clearing the ball. But that was a hammer of a shot. And a lot of respect for her and Rader; [jersey Nos.] 18 and 2 are two of the best forwards in the United States.”
The Blue Devils came within inches of early scores, with Devin Lynch heading the second of two fifth-minute corner kicks just over the goal and Cooper hooking a shot just wide of the far post. And that was about as close as either team would get to scoring for the first 25 minutes.
At halftime, Radford had recorded just 21 seconds of possession in Duke's half. Through the first 20 minutes of the second half, the Highlanders more than tripled that mark but did not record a shot until after the Blue Devils had already doubled their scoring margin.
Duke’s third goal came just five minutes into the second half. Piper recovered her own deflected shot attempt, and crossed-over two Highlanders as she dribbled back to the box. She squibbed her shot but it bounced under Phillips’ hands for Piper’s first-career goal, making her the tenth Blue Devil to record their first score in an NCAA tournament game.
“I didn't even know it went at first,” said Piper. “And Michelle was like, ‘It went in, Elle!’ And I'm like, ‘Oh!’ It was really exciting.”
In a testament to their efforts at breaking the Radford defensive shape, Duke’s last score came on a standard corner set. Mackenzie Pluck served a perfect ball from the left corner flag, and a header from Cooper—a shot she spent much of the offseason improving—bounced past Phillips to put Duke up 4-0. The Blue Devils finished with 26 shots, their most since Oct. 2, 2021, and 13 shots on goal, their most since the Sweet 16 last year.
Duke now gets a week of training in before hosting No. 7-seed Texas Friday night, when Church will look to move to 23-1-1 in the NCAA tournament at home.
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