Another game for Duke, another goal from Kat Rader.
On a steamy Sunday afternoon, the sophomore phenom scored the seventh game-winning goal of her young career as No. 4 Duke bested Wisconsin 2-1 at Koskinen Stadium. Rader became just the sixth player in Duke history to score in the first three games of the season. Grace Watkins also found the scorer's sheet for the first time this season with an incredible strike of her own.
“We really had a lot better movement than we had against USC,” said Duke head coach Robbie Church. “The goals were really big-time.”
The Blue Devils (2-1) implemented a new game plan to combat the defensive prowess of Wisconsin, allowing the striking trio of Grace Watkins, Rader and Devin Lynch to rotate freely between the wings and the forward spot. The constant movement allowed Duke to find more space in the final third and create problems at the back. A misplaced pass at the back from Wisconsin’s Hailey Baumann fell to the feet of Watkins at the top of the box, who took a touch and launched a rocket that found the top right corner in picture-perfect fashion. The 19th-minute strike was the first goal allowed by Wisconsin (1-1-2) all season long.
“Well, I was deciding if I wanted to take her one-on-one,” Watkins said. “But I just saw a little window that she was allowing for me to shoot. And so I decided to take it.”
“It’s great to see Gracie because I thought she played really well against Southern Cal, especially second half,” Church said. “I thought she put together another performance here.”
Duke continued to create chances, as shots from Elle Piper and Mia Minestrella forced good saves from Badger goalie Erin McKinney. The team’s efforts came to fruition when midfielder Carina Lageyre picked up the ball and sent a perfect through-ball down the wing towards the streaking Rader in the 76th minute. The 2022 ACC Freshman of the Year cut inside with her first touch and fired a shot across her body into the bottom left-hand corner, bringing Koskinen Stadium to its feet.
Rader took a hard challenge as the ball left her feet and landed awkwardly on her head. Although she was subbed out of the game, she cleared concussion protocol and returned to the game in the 87th minute.
“I honestly don’t remember the build-up [for the goal], I don’t know if that’s because I hit my head a little bit,” Rader said. “I found myself in an area I love to attack from so I just cut into my right foot and found a little window near-post. I feel like normally there I’ve been going far-post, so I wanted just to try a different shot.”
“Gracie [Watkins] and Kat [Rader] did a really good job of moving … Gracie actually scored a goal on the other side,” Church said. “When she’s on the left side, she can cut it in.”
Duke transfer goalie Leah Freeman continues to adjust to the new system, growing more comfortable by the minute. The senior, who won Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Year in 2022, came up huge in the 20th minute to keep the game knotted at 0-0. A sloppy giveaway by Duke’s Baliegh Bruster led to a breakaway for Wisconsin striker Izzy Verdugo. Freeman cut down the angle on the charging Verdugo and saved the shot with her body, forcing a corner kick.
“Leah wasn’t happy with her performance on Thursday night,” Church said. “She’s a big-time goalkeeper and she showed her competitive spirit with how she bounced back today.”
Although the Blue Devils were much better defensively then they were Thursday against Southern California, a bad case of ball-watching led to a late surge from the Badgers. Wisconsin winger Aryssa Mahrt received the ball off a throw-in and sent a slow-rolling ball across the six-yard box, which squirmed all the way to Riley Philbin. The junior Badger tucked the ball into the net with her left foot in the 86th minute, creating some drama for the final few minutes.
“We had a couple of breakdowns at the end,” Church said. “We turned off on that [goal], though. We cannot turn off on that throw.”
Duke travels across the country for a tough mental and physical battle against Stanford Saturday. In the meantime, the Blue Devils will take needed recovery time after the short rest this week.
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