It took 20 shots for Duke to get on the board against Texas. And now, it has still been more than 20 years since the Longhorns last emerged victorious against the Blue Devils.
Junior defender Katie Groff’s header off a corner kick in the 88th minute propelled Duke to a 1-0 victory against Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament Friday evening in Koskinen Stadium. The service—Duke’s ninth corner kick of the evening—came from graduate midfielder Mackenzie Pluck, who sent a high swing to the far post. Groff, who was waiting just on the corner of the six-yard box, snuck in behind a small crowd of Longhorn defenders and sent the ball into the opposite corner of the net.
“We mentioned to [Pluck] and talked to each other about, ‘Let’s find the backside, let’s overhit it,’” Groff said after the game. “Sometimes she swings it in more, but we were like, ‘Let’s overhit it and play it for me to come onto it,’ because I’ve scored from that kind of service before.”
“That’s a very talented team, and [for Texas] to come out with a zero on the scoreboard is just outstanding for our group,” head coach Robbie Church said.
After 20 shots throughout the evening, five of which were on goal, the finish was surely a relief for Duke, particularly after two flurries that offered the Blue Devils multiple chances to get on the board. Duke’s closest scoring chance of the first half came in the seventh minute, when graduate midfielder Delaney Graham fed the ball in from near the right corner flag and found the head of Pluck, bringing fans to their feet. Pluck’s header was deflected by Longhorn goalkeeper Savannah Madden and her follow-up attempt met the crossbar. The third attempt, this time by freshman forward Kat Rader, was just above the crossbar, eliciting a collective, frustrated exhale from the Blue Devil faithful.
As in Saturday’s win over Radford, Duke again needed time to adjust to a defensive scheme that limited its primary options, sophomore forward Michelle Cooper and Rader. Texas packed its players in the middle of the field—five were inside the penalty box when Graham carried the ball down the left side of the field—and doubled up coverage on Cooper, slowing Duke’s transition offense and sending most of Duke’s early shots deflecting off of players in burnt orange jerseys.
“I think we started off a little bit slow. The first 10 to 15 minutes, we didn't get to find a rhythm of play. But once we started to find our rhythm, I thought we played really well; we controlled the game,” Church said.
Cooper pulled back to more of a midfielder role in the second half to help give the offense a different look, Church explained, though he noted that she wasn’t quite used to the position. Junior midfielder Olivia Migli stepped up to make herself dangerous from the left side to support several offensive pushes in the second half. Fellow junior midfielder Grace Watkins tumbled after an encounter with a Longhorn defender, which Migli recovered and sent toward the net, though it was swiftly saved by Madden before a Duke player could make a goal of it.
The name of the game for Duke’s defense was stopping sophomore forward Trinity Byars, who sits at fifth in the nation in total goals with 17 this season. That responsibility was led by sisters Emily and Jenna Royson, who split bracket coverage of Byars; the closer sister would mark her, while the other would cover and fill the center back position.
“Our defensive plan going in was to know the general area of where [Byars and sophomore midfielder Lexi Missimo] were going to be and to make sure we were one player up; if they had two, we had three, and if they had one, we had two,” Emily Royson said. “My sister and I did a great job of being the two covering—one marking, one covering—and then pulling back [Groff or Maggie Graham] to help us out.”
Both teams appeared to grow impatient with the scoreless state of the game leading up to the 87th minute. For Duke, this manifested in taking several far-out shots—particularly for Cooper, who opened the second half with several shots from well beyond the penalty box—while Texas struggled to control offensive runs during transition and earned itself six offsides throughout the 90 minutes.
The climax of the second half came when Pluck battled a Longhorn defender for possession of the ball at the goal line, emerging victorious from the 1-on-1. Her service created another flurry of deflected shot opportunities for Duke, first by senior midfielder Sophie Jones, whose attempt was followed up by Maggie Graham and deflected behind the goal line—the subsequent corner kick would be the game-winning play for Duke.
“We’ve had a tremendous season,” Texas head coach Angela Kelly said after the game. “ … I’m just proud of the squad. It was a back and forth match, and it was going to be a tactical chess match.”
Duke will be at home again Sunday, where it will kick off against South Carolina in the Sweet 16 at 6 p.m.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.