GREENSBORO, N.C.—Lightning may have struck first but the Blue Devils struck harder.
No. 15 Duke took on UNC Greensboro on the road Sunday evening for 39 minutes until a thunderstorm delayed – and eventually suspended – the game, with play resuming Monday evening. Despite having only 51 minutes to get to work, the Blue Devils dominated possession and camped out in their attacking third, waiting for the game to break their way. With just under 13 minutes to go, it finally did, bringing a 1-0 victory back to Durham.
In the 78th minute, graduate midfielder Kati Druzina airmailed the ball from left field into the middle of UNC Greensboro’s penalty box, where sophomore forward Kat Rader waited dangerously. A Rader header sent the ball bouncing towards the goalie box as Spartan sophomore keeper Emma Malone charged forward to block it. Enter senior midfielder Maggie Graham. Graham took flight and stole the ball out of the air, punching it into the back of the net as she and Malone collided and hit the deck. The Spartans had little chance to notch an equalizer – Duke’s back line allowed only one shot the entire game.
“I think this whole week we really grew defensively. I thought we worked really hard all over,” said Duke head coach Robbie Church. “Defense for us is everybody on the field … forwards defended well, midfielders really closed down, and we limited them to only one shot.”
Lockdown defense proved crucial for Duke (4-2) as it fought to put the ball in the net on the other end. The Spartans (3-4-1) managed only 8% possession inside of the Blue Devils’ penalty arc in the first half, a key factor in holding them scoreless. The figure improved to just 11% in the second half. Any opportunities the Spartans did have in the strike zone were swiftly neutralized by defenders Elle Piper and Emily Royson. The sophomore and senior played the entire 90 minutes, along with sophomore midfielder Carina Legeyre and senior midfielder Katie Groff. The pair were a firm presence on both sides of the ball, and Legeyre kept the Spartans on their toes with three shots.
Piper provided a threat on offense with three shots as well, including a laser in the 12th minute from the right side that flew just over the top left corner of the net — a strike that would’ve been a worldie from distance had it been a few inches lower.
Close misses characterized the game for the Blue Devils. They showed no shortage of firepower on offense, but the one-goal win is perhaps misleading, considering they outshot the Spartans 17-1.
“We're doing a good job getting into the box and playing in their half … But now we just need to add that next level of finishing our chances,” Graham said. “We had 17 shots. The game should have been 4-0, but we're just not finishing those chances.”
Of Duke’s 17 shots, five were on goal, a rate slightly below its 0.414 average shots-on-goal percentage coming into the game.
Despite any rhythm from the first 39 minutes being broken by the inclement weather interruption, the unphased Blue Devils continued to command possession in the minutes played Monday just as they had the day prior. They were somewhat trigger-happy in their approach, confident that eventually one of their shots would hit its mark.
“I think we actually played better when we came back … We played with a lot more urgency. We knew we only had 51 minutes left,” Church said.
“It was good to be able to take a step back and regroup and know what to do going back into the last six minutes of the first half of the game to play the second half. I think we needed that little break to lock in,” Graham said.
Duke’s defense limited UNC Greensboro’s total possession to just 40% en route to its third shutout of the year, a reassuring performance that allowed the offense time to jell and create opportunities to score. The Blue Devils proved that they don’t always need to be playing their best soccer to walk away with the win, something made especially important as they head into conference play in one of the most competitive conferences in Division-I soccer.
“We got to be a little sharper in that final third… but I love that work rate in there,” Church said.
The Blue Devils head up to Chestnut Hill, Mass., looking to tack on another road win as they open conference play against Boston College Sunday at 1 p.m.
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