Sunday marked both the start of the World Cup and the start of Duke’s quest for its first NCAA championship since 1986. And, like the fans of Ecuador, the Blue Devil faithful celebrated as No. 7-seed Duke took down Denver in a second-round matchup that paired two of the top defenses in the country.
In a battle that felt closer than its final score, Duke emerged victorious 3-1—despite only taking six shots throughout the game compared to Denver’s 14 and going nearly 50 minutes between shots. The Blue Devils again relied on their defense and the play of ACC Goalkeeper of the Year Eliot Hamill, who finished the game with eight saves.
“As a goalkeeper, you hope to have a quiet game,” Hamill said after the game. “Denver was a great team, they were ranked really high at the end of the season, ended up not getting seeded and that’s why we ended up playing them, but they’re a very good team. The most important [thing is the] guys in front of me, they were just defending like their lives depend on it.”
The goal that ended up making the difference came just 15 minutes into the first half. Sophomore Shakur Mohammed, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year, saw an open line to the goal after a shot by Ruben Mesalles rebounded off the Pioneer defense. Mohammed wasted no time sending his shot past the outstretched arms of Denver goalkeeper Isaac Nehme, and his goal gave the Blue Devils a 2-0 lead that they were able to hold onto.
Both Duke and Denver entered the match known for their suffocating defense, so it was no surprise that the matchup was a physical one from the start, with 29 fouls total. Moreover, each team scored on a penalty kick in the first half.
The Blue Devils struck first, with junior midfielder Peter Stroud making good on a penalty kick just more than five minutes into the game. The chance came when Denver’s Eli Mereness mishandled a cross by Mohammed into the box and received a foul for a hand ball. As Stroud lined up to take the shot, Nehme danced back and forth on the line, but the ACC Midfielder of the Year was undeterred as he sent the ball into the back of the net to open the scoring.
“Step one is always being ready for when a situation comes up. And when it happened, I knew I was gonna score,” Stroud said. “The best thing you can do is going up [and] being confident—trusting yourself.”
About 30 minutes later, the Pioneers got a goal of their own. After a perfect feed from midfielder Lukas Fisher to Holger Olsson, Duke’s Antino Lopez was out of position and fouled Olsson in the box. Denver was also able to make good on the opportunity, with Olsson sending his shot just past a diving Hamill and cutting the Blue Devil lead to 2-1.
This penalty kick changed the momentum of the game, as Duke began to play sloppy for the rest of the half. For example, The Pioneers were almost able to get an easy goal after catching Hamill out of position, but Denver defender Ronan Wynne sent the ball over the net and out of play. The Blue Devils were lucky to get through the rest of the half unscathed and go to the locker room at halftime with a 2-1 lead intact.
“[Denver] gained a lot of confidence from scoring that goal late in the first half. They regrouped themselves and took advantage of a couple of things that we weren’t doing well,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “We were just so frivolous with the ball; we were turning backwards when we should be turning forwards. We sorted that out at halftime and played a little bit more on our front foot and a little bit more direct in the second half, and it paid off.”
Denver came out in the second half continuing to pressure Duke physically, and it resulted in a flurry of shots for the pioneers. Hamill came to the Blue Devils’ rescue with a diving save on a shot from Denver midfielder Ben Smith and again when Dylan Akau had a wide-open look at the goal. Hamill was able to deflect the ball over the net before leaping to catch the resulting corner kick.
Surviving this onslaught gave Duke the chance to convert on its own scoring opportunities. After a cross attempt by freshman Wayne Frederick was deflected out of bounds by the Pioneers’defense, Mesalles lined up to take a corner for Duke.
He played the ball in for Cameron Kerr, who passed it back to Mesalles so he could deliver a beautiful cross. As the ball floated towards the goal, ACC Freshman of the Year Kamran Acito leaped in the air to head the ball into the back of the net, stretching the Blue Devils’ lead to two.
“It’s not a good feeling when you’re dominating, and they get to go against the run and play,” Denver head coach Jamie Franks said. “You think the game is going to be 2-2 and all of a sudden it ends 3-1.”
Ultimately, Hamill and the Duke defense were able to stifle the relentless pressure that Denver brought, and while the Pioneers controlled possession for much of the game, the final margin was lopsided in Duke’s favor.
The Blue Devils will next face the winner of Sunday night’s FIU-New Hampshire matchup in the third round of the NCAA tournament Nov. 27 at 1 p.m.
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