When freshman Daniel Wright came off the bench, the Blue Devils needed a hero.
Trailing Virginia nine shots to one, Duke struggled to even get a hold on the ball, relying heavily on an elite defensive unit to stay in the game.
But three minutes after Wright entered the game, the Wixom, Mich., native caught an open look from sophomore Max Moser and slid the ball under Cavalier goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell for one of the Blue Devils’ most important goals of the season.
No. 18 Duke upset No. 13 Virginia 1-0 Friday night at Koskinen Stadium. In what would become a victorious Senior Night, the Blue Devils weathered a relentless Cavalier offense to finally capitalize on an opening late in the second period. Thanks to Wright’s lone score of the evening, Duke jumped three places in the ACC standings, locking down the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the ACC tournament.
“With all the ramifications, Senior Night, this is a huge win for us for so many reasons,” Blue Devil head coach John Kerr said. “For your seeding in the ACC tournament, for your seeding in the NCAA tournament and for our confidence level. We’ve been searching for this kind of consistency for a while. All credit to our guys—they played great.”
Although Duke (12-3-2, 4-3-1 in the ACC) took the only result that mattered, it was Virginia that looked in control of much of the match.
In the first half, the Cavaliers (10-3-3, 3-2-3) took five shots while holding the Blue Devils to just one. Redshirt senior midfielder Pablo Aguilar rattled Duke early with a high kick from about 30 yards out. The ball arched over the Blue Devil back line before goalkeeper Will Pulisic tipped it at the last second, forcing the shot high off the crossbar and keeping Duke from falling behind early.
The Blue Devils came inches away from falling behind again in the 31st minute thanks to a blazing drive from Virginia forward Edward Opoku, who had been running lines through Duke’s tough defense.
He finally found an opening off a high pass from his teammates, leaving just Pulisic between him and the back of the net. The Cavalier junior managed to fake the Duke freshman out for a wide-open net, but shot just wide left, keeping both sides scoreless into the half.
“As Muhammad Ali would say, it was a rope-a-dope for us defensively,” Kerr said. “We were very confident in defending in our own third. We did a really good job in limiting their opportunities. They certainly had a few opportunities, but we limited their opportunities.”
However, against a Cavalier squad that did not make any substitutions until the 80th minute, the Blue Devils’ resilience finally paid off.
Just after Virginia hammered Duke’s back line with three shots in six minutes to open the second half, the Blue Devils flipped the script. In the 63rd minute, Moser ran deep down the sideline into Cavalier territory before lobbing the ball straight to Brian White, who opted for the header. Unfortunately for Duke, Caldwell was waiting, cutting Duke short in just its second real chance to get on the board.
Unrelenting even after Wright’s late goal, Virginia made a point to make the Blue Devils work for their victory.
In the 84 minute, Aguilar pushed deep into Duke territory off a pass from Opoku and slid a shot toward the right corner of the net. Pulisic left the frame wide open, but Aguilar’s ball nicked the post, keeping the Blue Devils in the lead. Virginia’s final opportunity to score came in the 85th minute. A yellow card on Max Moser gave the Cavaliers a free kick opportunity, but Jerren Nixon Jr.’s attempt at a header flew high.
“We stayed really strong,” Wright said. “We stuck to the coaches’ plan, and in the end it worked out. We got a good couple breaks and in the end we could have scored a couple more times, but we got the win and that’s all that matters.”
The fourth-seeded Blue Devils will be back in action in the ACC tournament quarterfinals in Durham Nov. 5 against the winner of Syracuse and fourth-ranked Clemson.
“[The win] is fabulous for our seniors,” Kerr said. “They’ve been unlucky the past three years with their pursuit of postseason play. This gives us the last move forward to make their dreams realistic. They have a lot of potential, and now they’re fulfilling it.”