The bitter rivalry between Duke and North Carolina has produced historic games and Friday’s matchup on the pitch was no exception. A pair of Duke ejections helped the Tar Heels’ possession-oriented approach to overwhelm the Blue Devils, who fell to No. 6 North Carolina in overtime.
The Tar Heels (8-1-2, 3-0-1 in the ACC) defeated Duke (3-5-1, 1-2-1) 2-1 in a rain-drenched contest Friday night in front of a largely North Carolina-supporting crowd at Koskinen Stadium.
After 90 minutes of highly competitive play with the score tied at one, the game entered overtime with the Blue Devils down two players due to second-half red cards. Head coach John Kerr was also missing after receiving a red card in the previous match.
Fewer than two minutes into the overtime period, North Carolina midfielder Jordan Gafa blasted a shot from the right side of the 18-yard box past the outstretched arms of goalkeeper James Belshaw into upper left corner of the net for the game-winning goal.
In the second half, despite consistent pressure from the Tar Heels, Duke was able to push forward and create goal scoring opportunities. The Blue Devils struck first, after a largely lackluster first half, on a scorching shot from 15 yards out by midfielder Riley Wolfe in the 59th minute.
“We took the pressure in,” defender Sebastien Ibeagha said. “We knew that they were going to get possession on the ball. They’re good at that. Going into it, we knew we were going to have to defend for a large amount of time and then, when we got our chances, come out and counter attack and transition quickly.”
As North Carolina’s play became more desperate, Duke was forced into a largely defensive approach. The Blue Devils were crippled by mistakes from defender Chase Keesling and midfielder Ryan Thompson, who each were ejected in the second half after controversially receiving second yellow cards. Duke lost Keesling with around 16 minutes remaining in the game and Thompson with about eight minutes left on the clock.
“The rest of the guys battled. They did great,” Kerr said. “It’s really difficult over a period of time to defend two men down. We made some silly mistakes and paid the penalty.”
With only nine men on the pitch, the Blue Devil back line was stretched to defend the Tar Heels’ probing attack. After multiple opportunities, North Carolina netted its first goal with three minutes remaining to tie the game. Forward Cameron Brown struck a bouncing ball from 20 yards out, which Belshaw was unable to handle properly.
Going into the overtime period, the Blue Devils were forced to continue their defensive approach despite the need to score for the victory. The Tar Heels’ two-man advantage proved too much for the Blue Devils’ back line to handle in the end.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Ibeagha said. “We’ve got to keep our head up, keep going. We played well against them. We really did. You can kind of say that they got lucky, but at the same time we kind of killed ourselves with red cards.”
The first half of play began sloppily, but North Carolina took control of ball possession and the tempo of the game, testing Duke’s back line for goal-scoring opportunities. The Blue Devils held strong under the pressure, with midfielder Sean Davis helping his team possess the ball for long stretches of time.
“Sean Davis was immense tonight and he took a lot of pressure off us,” Kerr said. “He carried the ball forward and kept possession in our favor as we entered into the opponent’s half.”
The back four and Belshaw held strong against the Tar Heel pressure for the majority of the game. Belshaw, who was recognized as the ACC Player of the Week for his consistency in the net, recorded five saves and allowed two goals in the final five minutes of play.
“The back line did a great job, and they did a great job all season long,” Kerr said. “It’s a difficult game to accept when you let that team score two goals on you because [we] defended wonderfully the whole game. The whole team was fantastic tonight.”
Even though an upset was not in the cards for the Blue Devils, the team’s focus has shifted to bringing the same level of intensity and competition to upcoming conference matches.
“Now we have to suffer for a little bit,” Kerr said. “But if we show that kind of determination the rest of the season, we’ll be in good shape.”
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