Kip Coons, TSN Correspondent
DURHAM, N.C. – The anticipated showdown of Canadian National Team players didn’t materialize.
But West Virginia, ranked anywhere from second to fourth in the various national polls, clearly labeled itself a national contender Friday night.
The unbeaten Mountaineers (6-0-1) jumped on Duke from the outset and held on for a 3-1 victory over the sixth-ranked Blue Devils (4-2-1) in front of 1,860 in attendance at Koskinen Stadium.
Michaela Abam scored twice in the second half for WVU, including on a late penalty kick, after Amandine Pierre-Louis, one of seven Canadians on the roster, put West Virginia in front for good with a strike from 25 yards in the first half.
“They were great all over the field,” said Duke coach Robbie Church, who owned a win and a tie over the Mountaineers in the two sides’ brief 4-year-old series.
“They were athletic, they were strong. They can play with the ball. They’re a national championship contender, there’s no question about it.”
Highlights: WVU 3, Duke 1 (BDN – GoDuke.com)
With the win over Duke, WVU has played both of the 2015 NCAA finalists already this season.
The Mountaineers went on the road to tie reigning NCAA champion Penn State 1-1 in the season opener, a game they played without Canadian internationals Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, who anchored the WVU back line against Duke.
Buchanan and Lawrence were starters in the recent Rio Olympics, helping Canada to its second straight bronze medal.
Duke’s Rebecca Quinn also played a large role for Canada in the Olympics as a center back, and the trio was recognized in a pregame ceremony.
But Quinn was sidelined with a lower back injury.
Duke had not allowed a goal in the three games since she returned from the Olympics, but the Blue Devils struggled against WVU without her.
“Obviously we missed Rebecca, but that is no excuse,” Church said.
“We have a lot of really good players here. …There are going to be times when people are out of the lineup. That’s the sign of a (good) team, to have people step in and perform well.”
The Blue Devils didn’t really get going until they were down 2-0.
Pierre-Louis made a strong run away from speedy Duke midfielder Toni Payne from midfield in the 38th minute and fired from 25 yards.
Duke goalkeeper EJ Proctor got both hands on the high shot but was only able to deflect it up and into the net.
West Virginia made it 2-0 less than five minutes into the second half.
Abam blocked a clearing pass by Duke defender Schuyler DeBree and was able to run onto the loose ball toward the goal.
She lofted a shot into the net from 32 yards out as Proctor had strayed off her line to support the clearance.
“Today we started off on the wrong foot a little bit,” Church said.
“We didn’t connect passes, we turned it over, and we haven’t done that in most of the games this year. I think that caught us by surprise. It put some of us on our back foot.”
Church made some changes tactically in the second half, moving Christina Gibbons off the back line and into the holding midfielder role that Quinn has filled recently.
Outshot by a whopping 11-1 in the first half, Duke created more second-half chances and actually held a 7-5 advantage in shots over the final 45 minutes.
“We wanted to get her in the middle of the field (and) get her as many touches as we possibly can,” Church said of Gibbons.
“I thought she did a really good job in there, and I thought we created a lot of nice things. But we’d given up some goals at that point.”
Duke pulled one of those goals back in the 66th minute when a WVU foul led to a free kick by freshman Olivia Erlbeck from 28 yards.
Ashton Miller nodded the ball into the far corner of the net for her second goal of the season, and suddenly the Blue Devils appeared to take heart.
Miller usually attempts those free kicks, so it was a change of routine that saw her finish the play.
“I think at that point we were trying to find anything we could get,” Miller said.
“I mean, Liv had a great service. You saw what she can do.”
“Definitely Duke was coming after us,” WVU coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said.
“I thought our back line did great with their pressure.”
“We had some chances, and I thought we were close to tying the game up a couple of times,” Church said, “and then the penalty kick at the end.”
In the 80th minute West Virginia caught Duke with a quick counterattack when Sh’Nia Gordon played Hannah Abraham through with a pass to the right wing.
Duke defender Lizzy Raben caught up with Gordon and slid to kick the ball away without contacting Gordon first, according to multiple replays.
But Gordon fell over Raben on the tackle in the penalty area.
Referee Carmen Serbio, trailing the play by 20 yards and at a difficult angle to view the tackle, signaled the penalty kick, which Abam blasted home for her fourth goal of the season.
“From my angle it looked like she got all ball,” Church said.
“And then the girl ran into her. But I understand I’m a long ways from her.”
Duke won’t have long to fixate on the loss.
The Blue Devils host High Point at 6 p.m. Sunday in their final non-conference game of the regular season.
“The High Point game becomes an absolute must game for us right now,” Church said.