Kip Coons, TSN Correspondent
RALEIGH. N.C. – It wasn’t surprising to consider what was at stake for Duke on Sunday night.
The ninth-ranked Blue Devils, NCAA finalists a year ago, were playing for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) women’s soccer standings.
The surprise? So was their opponent, N.C. State.
The Wolfpack has been the surprise team of the conference season, but the showdown at Dail Soccer Stadium followed the recent history of the series.
Duke capitalized on an early penalty kick by Christina Gibbons, got a goal apiece from leading scorers Ella Stevens and Imani Dorsey, and goalkeeper EJ Proctor turned in a superlative effort to earn a 3-1 victory over the host Wolfpack.
The victory propelled Duke (10-2-2, 5-0-1 ACC) into sole possession of first place in the league.
N.C. State (9-4-1, 3-2-1), which could have joined Duke and Notre Dame in a three-way tie atop the standings with a victory, instead fell to seventh place, although just one point out of third.
And maybe that’s why N.C. State coach Tim Santoro was surprisingly upbeat after the loss.
Duke has owned this series (22-10-1), having won the last 16 meetings.
And before Sunday night, the Wolfpack hadn’t even managed a goal in the last 12 tries against Duke.
State erased that negative in the 68th minute when Kia Rankin volleyed home her fourth goal of the season, on a shot that Ricarda Walkling blasted from the 18-yard line.
“I thought it was the best game we played,” Santoro said.
Two penalty kicks in the first half determined the direction of the game.
Gibbons stepped up and drilled one in the 27th minute for Duke after Dorsey, angling for a cross from Gibbons, was taken down in the penalty area by State defender Hannah Keogh.
Just 11 minutes later, State had a penalty kick that could have equalized when the Blue Devils were called for a handball on a shot by Paige Griffiths.
However, Proctor made a diving deflection on Tziarra King’s low attempt at the right post and for good measure followed up with one of her seven saves on the ensuing penalty kick.
Duke completed the momentum switch and made it 2-0 less than two minutes before halftime when crisp passes from Malinda Allen and Casey Martinez – two veteran reserves off the Duke bench – set up Stevens at the right post for an easy tap-in and her team-high seventh goal of the season.
“Missing the penalty, and them getting one right before halftime, I thought that for all intents and purposes that put a pretty big stamp on the game,” Santoro said.
“I think if we could have gone in 1-1, it would have been a little different.”
“That to me is the game right there,” said Gibbons, one of the Duke captains.
“If they score that, they go 1-1, (and) it’s a lot more of a fight. Huge, awesome save. I’m really proud of EJ.”
Duke coach Robbie Church agreed.
“EJ was fantastic today,” he said.
“Not only on the penalty kick … everything was actually a big save for her today. They play a lot of balls in the box, a lot of big bodies around her, but she was big coming out on the cross.
“For me tonight she was a star for us. We’ve had some games where she hasn’t had to do a lot for us back there, but she’s such a big-time player, and she is really rounding into form, too, as we go down the stretch.”
Duke would extend its lead to 3-0 in the 59th minute when Dorsey got her seventh goal, knocking in the rebound of a shot by Gibbons that State goalkeeper Sydney Wootten saved initially.
Wootten was busy in her own right, making eight saves as Duke held a 15-14 edge in shots.
Gibbons picked up her team-high seventh assist on that goal and over her last three games has logged a goal and four assists.
The scoring has followed a position shift for the All-ACC defender to an outside midfield role after three starters were sidelined by injuries.
Sophomore forward Kayla McCoy (Achilles tendon) and senior defender Rebecca Quinn (turf toe) are out for the season, and sophomore midfielder Taylor Racioppi missed her third straight game with a lower leg injury.
“I’ve said a million times, Christina is such a soccer player,” Church said.
“She can play anywhere on the field. She was a great scorer at (Raleigh’s) Cardinal Gibbons. She can beat players 1-v-1. She’s very good passing the ball.
“But it wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have confidence in Chelsea Burns and Mia Gyau at left back, that they could play at a high level against ACC teams. Their development has helped us even think about that movement of Christina.”
For his part, Church is happy to see his Blue Devils atop the league standings.
“We’ve still got four more games in the league to go,” he said.
“But you always want to be in first place.”
By coincidence, Duke and State have the same four opponents remaining: No. 2 Florida State, No. 8 Virginia, No. 12 Clemson and Pittsburgh.
Duke hosts Virginia on Saturday, when State entertains FSU.
Church also recognized the improvement he saw in the Wolfpack.
“They were 0-10 for the last two years in a row in the league,” Church said.
“(This year) they beat North Carolina, they played Notre Dame tough, they win at Boston College. Those are tough places to win. So there’s a lot of belief in that team right now. That’s a good team, that’s a dangerous team that you could see in the ACC tournament or the NCAA tournament. And I expect they’re going to be in both.”
Santoro would like to believe that, too.
“We’ve been in some tougher spots in the last couple years,” he said.
“We know what we have coming up is tough, but our RPI is really good right now (No. 28). We just have to make sure we get something out of one of these games. A lot of teams would like to be where we are right now.”