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High-pressure defense moves Duke women's soccer one step closer to a championship against South Carolina

Duke's Michelle Cooper provided the winning brace Sunday, but the Blue Devil defense was impressive.
Duke's Michelle Cooper provided the winning brace Sunday, but the Blue Devil defense was impressive.

When the Blue Devil faithful filed into Koskinen Stadium Sunday night despite the bitter cold of the November air, they undoubtedly expected a marquee performance from the likes of Michelle Cooper or Kat Rader. However, over the course of 90 minutes, one old adage seemed to ring true for Duke: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. 

In the third-round NCAA tournament contest against No. 3 South Carolina, the second-seeded Blue Devils earned a 2-1 victory that sends them to the Elite Eight for the ninth time in 12 years as they put themselves one step closer to hoisting the College Cup trophy. The key to their success? Defense.

“[Defense] was really, really important,” said head coach Robbie Church after the game. “We were able to put them under pressure, and we worked extremely hard the whole match to set the tone for that pressure.”

In a complete turnaround from the beginning of the season, Duke’s high-pressure defense looked like a well-oiled machine that executed its job to perfection. While South Carolina possessed the ball in the early going, the Blue Devils were quick to pounce on the Gamecocks, with Cooper, Rader and graduate student Mackenzie Pluck leading the charge as a menacing front three. From there, Duke’s talented outside midfielders did much of the dirty work. Graduate student Delaney Graham and junior Olivia Migli made sure to suffocate their opponent’s wing players, giving them little room to operate and stifling any potential offensive builds. By cutting off any action coming down the flanks of the field, the Blue Devils were able to isolate South Carolina’s biggest threat in forward Catherine Barry.

“It starts with our forwards and they do so much work to pressure and pile in to counter pressure,” said Church. “When we lost the ball in midfield, I thought we did a good job of locking on and the backs did a good job of reading the play.”

As the game wore on, the Gamecocks began to look more threatening, stringing together passes in the middle of the field in hopes of setting up Barry for a decent opportunity. While their high press was not always as successful in the second half of play, Duke had plenty of defensive tricks up its sleeve. Demonstrating a tight-knit defensive unit with incredible chemistry, the Blue Devils worked together almost seamlessly to clear any potential threat out of the box with their cohesion on full display. For the most part, any opportunity that made it past the stingy defense was an easy save for senior goalkeeper Ruthie Jones.

Duke proved that the best offense is defense as well, with both of Cooper’s goals coming off of forced turnovers. In just the 12th minute, the intense Blue Devil defense helped Graham win the ball on the right flank, who quickly deposited it at the feet of Rader. The freshman phenom then found Cooper checking back to the middle of the field. Once again, defenders proved their versatility in the match, with Graham streaking up the sideline to earn the ball from Cooper before sending in a cross to the feet of Rader. While the Stuart, Fla., native’s shot was blocked, it fell into the waiting hands of Cooper, who volleyed the bouncing ball into the upper left corner of the net to put Duke up early.

The Blue Devils’ defensive prowess turned to offensive conversion did not stop there. The relentless pressure of Duke’s forwards on South Carolina’s back line paid off late in the game when freshman Gracie Falla attempted to pass back to senior keeper Heather Hinz, only to find Cooper charging hard and fast. Picking off the ball outside of the 18-yard box with Hinz well off her line, the sophomore cut past the frantic goalie before hitting it home to the near post. 

“I think something we really harp on is going right away and making sure … we go and expend our energy so we can run them down and also take advantage of those opportunities,” said Cooper. “I think taking advantage of them and putting them away in transition is really important.”

“They really started to spray balls around the field, kick balls out of bounds, or play balls that are just wide and we can pick those up,” Church added. “I thought everybody really pressed high, so we did a really good job of that.” 

As the Blue Devils prepare to face No. 1-seed Alabama in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, high pressure and a cohesive defense will be crucial. With the Crimson Tide’s bread and butter of physicality and set-piece domination throughout the season, Duke will need to utilize its defense to create offense in transition, where it can use its creativity to outwit the Alabama defense. If they can get their opponent to cough up the ball under pressure as the Gamecocks did, the Blue Devils may punch their ticket to the College Cup semifinals.

“They pressed very well, they were organized, they were fast, and they were a little bit quicker than we were,” said South Carolina head coach Shelley Smith. “I think Duke can take advantage of the transition game that they have and their ability to open [Alabama] up.”

Duke will head to Tuscaloosa, Ala., Friday to face off against the Crimson Tide, where its high-pressure defense will be put to the test.

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