Duke’s season, in more ways than one, is comparable to a house of cards.
At a glance, it looks to be a formidable opponent — the Blue Devils are the 25th-ranked team in the nation and their sheer artistry at times and individual excellence are undeniable. But as the wind blew hard in Louisville, Ky., Duke and its postseason aspirations came crashing down.
There were no last-minute heroics this time, as the Blue Devils suffered a 1-0 loss against Louisville in their final game of the season Thursday night. This loss thrusts Duke into a losing season, stealing away for the first time since 2014 any remaining hopes of making the NCAA tournament.
“This is obviously very disappointing for our program to go out at this stage, and not make the NCAA tournament,” head coach Robbie Church said. “We have to learn from this … we have to grow from this, we have to remember this moment like it is right now, how much it hurts and how much it stings.”
From the first whistle blow, it was clear that Duke (6-7-3, 2-5-3 in the ACC) was on its hunt for an early lead.
After a quick first shot by Louisville’s Hayley Howard, sophomore forward Kat Rader was quick to lead Duke’s attack. In a free-kick attempt beyond the 18-yard box, the prolific goalscorer curled in a hard-hit shot that bounced off of the crossbar. The next two shots also came at the feet of Rader, who finished the game with four shots.
But after a series of poor decision-making in the final third and sloppy mistakes in transition from Duke, the momentum would shift to Louisville (4-9-5, 3-5-2).
And its first strike came when least expected.
With less than 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Howard, from behind the halfway line, saw a running Emma Hiscock with just inches of space, between three Blue Devils. With time and space, Howard placed the ball for Hiscock to chase. After a quick foot race to the ball, it was a diving, left-footed strike from Hiscock that gave the Cardinals the lead.
A goal down and its season on the line, Duke took a gamble — it switched to a three-back formation, pushing players up to the attacking third. The Blue Devils have recently struggled to find the back of the net, not scoring more than one goal in each of their last nine matches.
And this game was no exception.
Despite outshooting Louisville 15 to six, the Blue Devils could not find a way around sophomore goalkeeper Erynn Floyd. The Wilton, Conn., native finished the match with a three-save shutout.
In the second half, the Blue Devils continued to push the ball up the field through the middle. The Cardinals, sitting back into their defensive half, did thwart Duke with deflections and pressure in the central area. When Duke did play through the defense, however, often in simple one-touch give-and-go passing, it enjoyed near-goal chances in the box. Of those chances, four came from senior midfielder Grace Watkins in the final 35 minutes of play.
Duke’s best look at a goal came with 30 seconds left on the clock. Near the 18-yard box, Watkins flung a well-placed cross into the box, hoping one of her teammates would get there for the equalizer. Out of a crowd of Louisville defenders, it was Rader who flew in, diving and lunging for the ball. The ball went slightly wide and past the head of Rader.
Watkins wasn’t the only senior who excelled in her final game in Duke blue. Both Maggie Graham and Nicole Chico played the entire match, winning balls back and facilitating the ball. Leah Freeman, a transfer goalie from Oregon, was the pillar of Duke’s defense.
“I would like to thank our seniors for a great, great four years,” Church said. “They have done nothing but be phenomenal young ladies in the classroom, on the field and in the community. “
With a premature end to the season, the Blue Devils will see an earlier start to their preparation for the next season, something they hope will be more sturdy than the house of cards this season has in many ways been.
“We will be back,” Church said. “I promise you that.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.