Just like the dark and the 33-degree temperature suggested at Koskinen Stadium, winter is coming. Cheers sounded from both the Blue Devils’ and visitors’ sides as Duke, donning uniforms white as ice, hosted the red-clad Gamecocks. Though no snow fell on the field Sunday, the Blue Devils were like ice as they put out a fiery South Carolina team, restricting almost all of its opportunities.
In defeating the visiting squad 2-1 in the third round of the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils advanced to their ninth Elite Eight in 12 years, the round in which they fell last season to Santa Clara. No. 2-seed Duke got off to a strong, fast-paced start against the third-seeded Gamecocks. The team showed improved attacking from its down-to-the-wire victory two nights before against Texas, as well as a defensive prowess that will be key down the road.
“I thought it was a really good performance,” head coach Robbie Church said after the game. “I thought we were very focused and we worked extremely hard the whole match.”
In the 84th minute, sophomore forward Michelle Cooper scored her second goal of the night against an empty Gamecock net. Making the contest 2-0, it was clear that Duke had punched its ticket to the next round. And Cooper, whose goal marked her 45th point of the season, broke a school record in doing so, surpassing Laura Weinberg’s 2012 single-season record of 44.
From the start, the Gamecocks were not playing around; they had opportunities near goal before the first minute closed out. Quick tactical changes worked to the Blue Devils’ advantage in the second minute when freshman forward Kat Rader got Duke’s first opportunity at goal, but her shot was kicked out by Gamecock goalkeeper Heather Hinz before it could get there.
Duke’s second big offensive opportunity came in the eighth minute. Cooper took her first shot, a close miss that came just shy of the net. Evidently, the Blue Devils had the attacking looks they needed to win.
And that was displayed just 11:44 into the contest when the Gamecock transition accidentally fed Rader the ball. In a flash, she passed it to Cooper, who then rolled it to an empty spot up top for senior midfielder Delaney Graham. Cooper and Rader kept driving toward the goal as Graham saved the ball from going out of bounds and kicked it across the box. In an attempt to clear, Gamecock freshman Gracie Falla kicked it backward, where the ball instead reached Cooper’s right foot. With a swift boot from the sophomore, the ball found the net, and the game was 1-0.
“We’re a good transitional team. This is as good of a team that I remember in transition,” Church said. “... A number of players can run and get themselves forward and make good decisions, and [be] unselfish in transition.”
Duke’s starters each played their roles to perfection, with quick adjustments being the name of the game. That proved consistent for the Blue Devils, who had 61% of possession throughout the game and only ever lost the ball to South Carolina in flashes.
South Carolina intercepted a pass in the 27th minute, earning its first main attacking opportunity, as it was a half in which the Blue Devils had primary possession. However, the Gamecocks struggled to keep hold. One South Carolina player launched the ball too deep into Duke’s defensive third, where it reached goalkeeper Ruthie Jones and was swiftly volleyed back.
“I felt we were really patient; we let them jump to us,” Church said. “And then as soon as they jump, we slid down into the pocket, and we received the balls. And then—we looked at our attack.”
By the time the first half ended, Duke had the shot advantage at 10-1 thanks not only to its possession advantage but to its speed. But in the second half, closer chances came for the Gamecocks, who returned from the locker room looking stronger than they had in the first 45 minutes.
South Carolina practically tied Duke in the second half with eight shots to the Blue Devils’ nine. And with impatience from the Gamecock faithful present in the form of loud shouts and screams, South Carolina ignited its offense. The visitors beat Duke in transition in the 59th minute, and Gamecock forward Catherine Barry fired a shot toward the goal that was deflected by a Blue Devil defender. Then, a foul by junior defender Emily Royson granted the Gamecocks a free kick, but it missed high of the goal.
Eventually, South Carolina did not leave Durham empty-handed. With 1:25 remaining, the Gamecocks got their first goal after an interception in transition. Gamecock senior Riane Coman passed to teammate Payton Patrick, who finished the opportunity. Though less than 90 seconds remained, South Carolina played until the end, but the Blue Devils would hold on until the horn blew in their favor.
“I think we’re just trying to keep the team calm and collected at that moment. Obviously, you never want to give up a goal, especially in the last three minutes of the game. But I think we all knew we could lock in at the moment, do the right things, do our jobs, get the ball to the corner, game management; we would be good,” said graduate student midfielder Mackenzie Pluck. “I had confidence in my team.”
With the win, the Blue Devils remain one of five prevailing ACC teams heading to the Elite Eight. Duke’s next challenge in its quest toward the College Cup has it traveling to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for a Friday matchup against No. 1-seed Alabama.
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