Ulfur Bjornsson’s 10th goal of the season meant the fans in Historic Riggs Field had to sit through another 10-minute overtime. And then through penalty kicks.
Clemson went first. A clever hesitation from Ousmane Sylla earned the Tigers their first green checkmark. The same move from their next kicker won them their second.
Duke wasn’t as lucky. Senior captain Nick Pariano’s determined bottom-right dart got past the Clemson goalkeeper but nothing else did. Bjornsson couldn’t clinch an 11th goal of the season and Forster Ajago missed the mark completely, sending the ball just left of the post. After more than 110 minutes of play, the semifinal contender for the ACC tournament was decided, and Duke was going home.
On a dark Sunday night in Clemson, South Carolina, the fifth-seeded Blue Devils fought tooth and nail for a spot in the ACC semifinals against No. 4-seed Clemson. They took the longest lead in the match and held a tie until the competition was finally shut down by penalty kicks.
“It was a crazy game,” said head coach John Kerr Tuesday morning.
It didn’t take long for the Tigers to take the advantage on Duke (11-3-3, 4-3-1 in the ACC). The first one was on freshman goalie Julian Eyestone, who wasn’t fast enough to get to the sharply angled shot that crossed from far right to far left off the foot of Clemson’s Tyler Trimnal. It was a tough blow for Kerr’s squad to see its opponent pick up momentum as early as minute 11. If the mental game had anything to do with it, put it on the fact that the Blue Devils haven’t beaten the Tigers (9-3-4, 4-2-2) in nearly two years.
The scenes that followed Clemson’s first goal offered just as much cause for Duke anxiety. Two shots hit Eyestone hard, though the young Texas native was able to get in front of them. Still, the Tigers dominated possession — even the seven fouls they had collected before 30 minutes elapsed weren’t enough to give Duke any sort of quality time with the ball.
It was like Duke getting a taste of its own medicine. Clemson dominated the game, holding a stalwart defensive line as well as an offensive front that refused to let the visiting team get any playing time.
Until the Blue Devils got tired of that. It might have been anger that spurred the play. An orange jersey knocked Bjornsson to the ground and got away without a foul. Without missing a beat, senior defender Amir Daley kicked the ball between the perpetrator’s legs and sent it up to Wayne Frederick in the far left corner, who passed it up to trusty graduate striker Ajago. The Ghana native bounced the ball off his chest, ran closer to the goal, took the ball off a bounce from the Clemson goalie and sent it angrily behind him into the net. It was his 14th goal of the season and just his fifth scored in the first half of a game.
“We're particularly strong in the second half,” Kerr said. “Just because we get in a rhythm.”
It was clear right as it got moving that the second period would be different. Ruben Mesalles took the first corner kick of the second half to get the assist for a clean header from Trimnal — a Clemson own-goal that put Duke ahead in the second half and the third own-goal from a Duke opponent in as many games.
“If you put the ball in dangerous spots, you're gonna ask a lot of questions of the defenders and Ruben has been doing that well for us all year,” Kerr said.
Tiger goalkeeper Joseph Andema, however, was worth his salt. The Blue Devils got close to a third goal with just under 20 minutes to go. Pariano took a shot that Andema saved with a dive to the ground. When the ball came back and Bjornsson tried to head it into the net, the goalkeeper jumped up from his position on the grass to stop the second attempt with reflexes like lightning.
Unfortunately for Duke, Eyestone couldn’t do the same. A double header from Clemson took him by surprise; as he got ready to dive towards the post, Trimnal redirected a bump from his teammate to Eyestone’s other side. The goal was on the scoreboard before the freshman could make up for his misdirection. Match tied, 2-2.
Ten minutes of inevitably fraught soccer left to play. In theory.
The Blue Devils crowded around the Clemson goal, hitting and heading shots at Andema as minutes ticked by. Duke earned itself three corner kicks in a two-minute span but was unable to follow through on any of them. Then it was Clemson’s turn. Andema sent the ball to Eyestone’s side of the field for a mirror effect: The Tigers did the same as their opponents, taking corner kicks and tantalizingly close shots at Eyestone without actually changing the numbers on the scoreboard. Duke took possession one last time before the regulation period ended, only to have its attempt at the goal deflected again by Andema — a Tiger worthy of his stripes Sunday night.
At the end of the first overtime, it was up to the officials to make a decision that would disrupt the tie still hanging over the field with just six minutes left to go. The referees called a penalty on Daley after a clumsy trip that knocked down Clemson’s Alex Meinhard. The Tigers’ representative made good on his opportunity, and even though Eyestone managed to make contact with the ball as it sailed toward the goal, the kick was powerful enough to still fly past his reaching keeper’s gloves.
It should have been over then. Somehow, it wasn’t.
“We weren't gonna give up,” Kerr said. “We were very resilient and mentally tough and squeezed out an equalizer.”
Pariano got the assist and Bjornsson got the goal, another up-close and personal affair that involved the Icelandic freshman chest-bumping the ball at Andema before catching the rebound and kicking it into the goal. Three minutes left to go, score 3-3.
Second overtime was desperate. Two teams giving everything for a goal despite evident fatigue all over the field. Nobody scored. It was left to penalties, and then it left with Clemson.
“It does give us a lot of confidence in our performance and our resiliency to know that we'll be a formidable force in the NCAA tournament coming up next week,” Kerr said.
Duke turns to the national scene now, beginning Nov. 13 and with a chance to play in the NCAA College Cup at the end of the month.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.