This time, Okwuonu’s orchestration was for naught. All he could do was watch as the ball arched perfectly into the upper left corner of the net. In an instant, Okwuonu and his teammates turned lifeless as Duke’s bench raced onto the field to celebrate the 75th-minute equalizer in Durham.
Six minutes later, the Blue Devils (3-2-1, 1-1-0 ACC) scored again to hand No. 1 UNC (5-2-0, 1-1-0 ACC) its second loss of the season. And just like that, the Tar Heel defense suffered a dent in its aura of invincibility.
“As a leader on the field, I just try to keep everyone organized, be strong defensively and live for shutouts,” Boyd said. “And we didn’t get that done (Friday). I take responsibility for that.”
Though Duke’s late scoring outburst came suddenly, it was the culmination of a lackadaisical second-half effort by the UNC defense. While the Blue Devils emerged from the locker room looking sharper and more aggressive on the attack, the Tar Heels’ legs appeared heavy.
After the game, Coach Carlos Somoano struggled to pinpoint the reasons for UNC’s defensive lull. He pondered physical exhaustion, inadequate mental preparation and ineffective substitutions. Forward Tyler Engel, who scored the Tar Heels’ only goal in the 38th minute, attributed the sluggish play to a lack of urgency.
“I’d say as a whole team, we just have to come out ready for that second half a lot better and just be more prepared and put a harder shift in,” Engel said. “They just out-competed us, I guess. We’ve just got to come out and not let that happen.”
Despite the defense’s uncharacteristic woes, Okwuonu was his usual self. He was seemingly everywhere, intercepting passes, disrupting scoring chances and chasing down attackers on the breakaway.
After Duke’s game-tying goal, as goalkeeper Brendan Moore punted the ball in frustration and most of the Tar Heel defenders walked away stunned, it was Okwuonu who remained poised and confident. He clapped his hands, urging his teammates to stay focused. But he wasn’t able to summon the energy needed to prevent another Duke goal.
As the public address announcer counted down the game’s final seconds, UNC’s players slumped over and brought hands to knees, their bodies spent and their minds searching for answers.
“First of all, we can’t put ourselves in that situation,” Okwuonu said. “When we do, we have to figure out a way to respond. We don’t have the answers right now, but we’ll get it.”
As the defense tries to return to top form before Friday’s game against Notre Dame, it will look for ways to sustain its intensity and respond to adversity. A good place to start: Follow Boyd Okwuonu’s lead.