The Blue Devils had a raucous crowd on their side, every stat advantage they could take and were playing the sort of aggressive offense that fans had been dying to see them play all season.
On paper, the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament should have been Duke’s game. But what should happen is rarely what happens, and the seventh-seeded Blue Devils fell 3-2 to Creighton, leaving their home field at Koskinen Stadium with no College Cup berth to show for one of the best showings they put on all season.
“We threw the kitchen sink at them,” Duke head coach John Kerr said after the game. “It just wasn’t our day, and it’s as frustrating as can be.”
The last three minutes of the first half decided the game. The Bluejays intercepted the ball in the midfield and carried it up the left wing. Creighton defender Miguel Ventura launched a cross directly toward midfielder Jackson Castro, stationed at the right post of the net. What appeared to happen was that Castro’s shot bounced off goalkeeper Eliot Hamill, hit the post and came out, where Blue Devil freshman defender Kamran Acito looked to clear it. However, the referee called it as a goal and the call was not overturned after video review.
Less than two minutes later, the Bluejays ensured no one could put an asterisk on their win, and extended their lead to 3-1. After a failed Duke corner kick, Creighton brought the ball toward Duke’s side of the field, but seemed to slow down the pace in an effort to protect a fragile lead. Some positioning errors opened up space just above the box for midfielder Charles Auguste to casually run up and make a rainbow over the other players, past a diving Hamill and into the top right corner. By the half, the Bluejays had scored more goals on the Blue Devils in one period than any other team this season.
“That ball was a wonder shot from 35 yards. He took advantage of a little bit of space in that area in front of the box. But I mean, I don't think any goalkeeper in the world is gonna save that,” Kerr said.
Through the final frame, Duke dominated, going on to take 13 shots in the half to Creighton’s three and 14 corner kicks to its opponent's one, all while also drawing three yellow cards and 14 total fouls.
The Blue Devils were rewarded with a goal in the 75th minute. Off one of the seemingly infinite corners—a total of 22 set the Blue Devils’ season record—freshman Wayne Frederick’s initial header went wide, but sophomore Ruben Mesalles was there to bank the rebound off a Bluejay and into the goal. Down 3-2, Duke did not take its foot off the gas. Ultimately, though, Creighton crossed the finish line first and advanced to the national semifinal. Bluejay goalkeeper Paul Kruse delivered the saves he needed to make, and the Blue Devils, for all their newly found offensive fervor, could not get that final goal to tie it.
“Throughout the year, we learn how to suffer,” Auguste said of the second half. “Midseason, usually those types of games we would end up losing them, but we learn and we just grind it out and come out of the game with the win.”
The Bluejays came out strong to start the match, but Duke quickly took back the momentum. A hard sliding tackle from Peter Stroud just before the 10-minute mark gave the Blue Devils a numbers advantage attacking the goal and led to the match’s first true opportunity. Star sophomore Shakur Mohammed collected the ball in the center of the box, but with two defenders descending on him, he elected to tap the ball to freshman midfielder Kenan Hot racing in from the wing. Kruse pounced on the low-angle shot, but the Blue Devils’ tone was already set. They were going to attack the goal, and attack it hard.
The problem that brought, though, on a rainy, discombobulated day, was that Creighton was not simply taking the hits, the Bluejays were stalking every loose ball like prey, waiting to strike. With Duke condensed around the box at the ready for a rebound from a Mohammed shot minutes later, the Bluejays stole the ball and sent it the other direction faster than the Blue Devils could keep up. Creighton had control after that, pressuring Hamill for the first time since the game’s opening minute. Though freshman defender Axel Gudbjornsson was able to push the ball carrier to the outside and take the ball away in the corner, he passed the ball right to the feet of Auguste. Forward Duncan McGuire’s subsequent shot came from way down low, but that did not matter, as it snuck past Hamill in the bottom left corner.
But this was the NCAA tournament, and no team gives up after allowing a goal. Duke kept up the pressure and was rewarded with a corner. Though the Blue Devils did not get a good look off the set piece, Hot laid a line drive on Kruse from up high, and the Bluejay couldn’t corral the rebound. A Herculean effort from Stroud to keep the ball inbounds along the goal line opened up a close-up shot that drew Kruse out of the goal. Two Bluejays stepped in front of the goal in his stead, but they were not prepared for Duke’s relentlessness, and Gudbjornsson finally broke through the chaos for the tying goal.
Kruse got his redemption a few minutes later, though, stuffing Luke Thomas from point-blank range, and then again when Frederick got ahold of the rebound and sent a rising shot from the far corner of the box. Kruse leapt up, barely grazing the ball enough to divert it over the goal, keeping the Blue Devils a fingernail-length away from taking the lead.
“We’ve always trusted [Kruse] to make those warranty saves that he’s not supposed to make all season, and today he made three or four that were huge and kept us in the game,” McGuire said.
Later in the second half, as Duke tried desperately to tie the game and keep its season alive, Kruse was always there to make the save. The first save seemed like luck, but there is certainly no luck involved when you take down the No. 2, No. 15 and No. 7 seeds in hostile territory as Creighton did.
After becoming the fourth victim of a plucky team from Omaha, Neb., the Blue Devils still have a lot of accomplishments to reflect on. The quarterfinal loss was just Duke’s second of the season, the program’s fewest losses in a season since 1999. Nevertheless, they could not win when it mattered, with mere inches ready to haunt them through the offseason.
“This will stick with us for quite a while just like Saint Louis did last year,” Kerr said. “We'll think about [the accomplishments] later. But right now we just have to swallow the pain and try to find some solace going forward with how much we like being in this program and how much these guys have bought in.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.