It was an evening of firsts for Duke sports Wednesday. The first exhibition of the year for the men’s basketball team. Field hockey’s first ACC title game appearance since 2011. And Duke men’s soccer’s first playoff win of the year.
The fifth-seeded Blue Devils scored early, pulled ahead and then hung on after giving up two late goals to leave Koskinen Stadium with a 3-2 win against No. 12-seed Boston College in a win-or-go-home ACC tournament matchup.
“We wanted to get off to a good start, we talked about it before the game,'' head coach John Kerr said after the game. “And you can't beat scoring a goal in the first three minutes, great header, great execution with a cross.”
In what has been a rarity for this year’s Duke team, the home squad scored a goal not just in the first half, but after less than three minutes had elapsed. It came, unsurprisingly, on a corner kick. Senior defender Antino Lopez got the crown of his head on a cross from midfielder Nick Pariano, driving the ball home and giving the Blue Devils (11-3-2, 4-3-1 in the ACC) the early cushion. For a team that has scored almost exclusively in the second half, this one came as a bit of a surprise. This was the earliest goal for the squad all year.
After conceding the early goal, the Eagles (3-9-5, 0-5-3 in the ACC) came back with a little more energy. Boston College was controlling the ball with ease. Ultimately, Duke goalkeeper Julian Eyestone managed to corral the ball and relieve some of the pressure, but the Blue Devils continued to get pushed onto their heels. After a few minutes of tension and some key saves from the freshman, Duke managed to escape and reestablish some control.
Once the opening back-and-forth was complete, both teams settled in. Each tried the occasional push, but there was not a whole lot of urgency on either end. Back-passes were made, fields switched. Quality chances were limited. In what was largely an uninspiring first half, neither team was able to generate meaningful opportunities and the two went into the locker rooms with the hosts up 1-0 courtesy of Lopez’s opener.
“I kind of let a foot off the pedal and allowed them more time on the ball than we wanted to give them and they had more of a geographic advantage in the first half late,” Kerr said. “We had to sort a few things out at halftime, and I thought we did a better job of preventing them from getting space and getting on the ball and turning forward in the second half.”
The first quality opportunity of the second half came early for Pariano when he found the ball at his feet near the upper corner of the box. Pariano fired it on net, forcing Eagle keeper Brennan Klein to make a diving save. From there, Duke kept the pressure on. Crosses continued to come in and there were plenty of chances on the net, but the Blue Devils were held scoreless through the first ten minutes of the second half.
Finally, they gained some insurance in the 62nd minute when midfielder Drew Kerr shot, took the ball back after a deflection off the defender and slid it across to freshman forward Ulfur Bjornsson — open near the penalty spot. The Iceland native fired the ball home, as it deflected off the hands of Klein and into the bottom left corner of the net, Bjornsson’s sixth goal in three games. When asked about his scoring streak, he credited his team and the chemistry the squad has built.
“We think we're way better right now than we were in the beginning,” Bjornsson said. “And that helps me a lot. When the team is playing well, I play well.”
Drew Kerr picked up another assist just a minute and a half later, as he took a ball from graduate forward Forster Ajago down the sideline, beat a man on the inside and slid the ball across the box to find midfielder Ruben Mesalles wide open. The junior promptly finished the job, deflecting the ball into the back of the net between traffic to open up a three-goal lead. With 27 minutes remaining, the Blue Devils were solidly in control of the game.
The Eagles looked weak in the first 30 minutes of the second half, recording just one shot in 32 minutes compared to the 13 for Duke. That being said, the game was not over. Despite the three-goal deficit, the visiting squad managed to claw its way back on the counterattack with just under 10:30 remaining. Freshman forward Daniel Klaric finished a rebound on the fast break after Eyestone deflected the first of two shots, but could not get back into position to make the second save.
That first goal appeared to shoot the life right back into the Eagles, who followed up that first goal just over a minute later as sophomore defender Christian Bejar found the ball sitting wide open in the box, taking it to the promised land and bringing Boston College back within one. Now that the game was close, the Blue Devils pulled back. The Eagles clearly smelled blood in the water, and Duke was fighting to stay afloat. The pressure continued as the Blue Devil offense struggled to develop and the Boston College counterattack grew stronger.
As the clock wound down to two minutes, the contrast between the two strategies grew starker. The Eagles continued to push forward, leaving fewer defenders behind. Bjornsson almost managed to grab another goal, attempting to catch the opposing keeper out of his net from half field. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the ball went just wide.
In the end, however, Duke managed to keep the ball out of the net long enough for time to expire. The Blue Devils walked out with the win, and will now hit the road for a Sunday evening game at Clemson. It will be a tough one, but the team is feeling good.
“I'm excited. We're now in the ACC tournament,” Bjornsson said. “You lose, you go out so I'm excited for it. I think we're a different team from when we went up against them earlier in the season.
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