No. 6 Duke is going up against the No. 3 team in the country. Yet the Tar Heels—who fell 11-8 to the Blue Devils March 13—are the ones entering the ACC semifinal with an underdog mentality.
Third-seeded Duke and second-seeded North Carolina will square off Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“We’re going in with an underdog mentality with [the Blue Devils] having beat us by three goals at our place last time,” Tar Heel head coach Joe Breschi said. “They’re playing tremendous lacrosse, and right now they’re playing the best of anyone in the country.”
With a game against Duke (11-4, 2-1 in the ACC) under its belt this season, North Carolina (10-3, 2-1) knows what to expect from the Blue Devils, who are riding a nine-game winning streak—the longest active streak in the country.
“In our last game [against Duke] we just didn’t have a lot of possession,” Breschi said. “Brendan Fowler is the best faceoff guy in the country. Duke played with such great emotion and physicality throughout the game, and I’m not sure we handled the mental aspect as well as we were able to do at that time.”
Fowler went 17-of-23 from the X against the Tar Heels for a 73.9 faceoff percentage. The junior earned All-ACC accolodes after posting a 65.2 faceoff percentage—good for third in the country—and scooping up 144 ground balls on the season. Fowler tied the single-season ground ball record set by CJ Costabile, who graduated last year.
In addition to preparing for a tough faceoff matchup and a mental battle, North Carolina has been working on improving its communication on defense and capitalizing on its offensive opportunities.
Communication on defense will be essential for both teams in Friday’s contest, which will pit two of the country’s highest-scoring offensive units against each other. Duke ranks third nationally, averaging 13.53 goals per game, and North Carolina ranks fourth, notching 12.77 tallies per contest. Juniors Jordan Wolf and Josh Dionne and senior David Lawson lead the charge for the Blue Devils with 40, 28 and 24 goals, respectively. Wolf and Lawson were both selected to the All-ACC team with Fowler. To continue its rapid offensive output, Duke will have to outplay Tar Heel freshman goaltender Kieran Burke, who garnered ACC Defensive Player of the Week honors in three of the past four weeks.
The Tar Heels’ starting attack line features senior Marcus Holman and sophomores Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter. Holman and Sankey, who were named to the All-ACC squad, have scored 32 goals apiece this season. With 31 assists on the year, Holman is the team’s leading distributor.
“[North Carolina] has maybe the most explosive, exciting attack in the country, spearheaded by Marcus Holman, who is maybe one of the best attackmen in the country,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “[The Tar Heels have] two dynamite sophomores in Sankey and Bitter.”
Aware of the challenges they will face on both ends of the field, the Blue Devils are prepared for Friday’s highly-anticipated matchup. The winner of Friday’s game will advance to the ACC Championship Sunday against top-seeded Maryland or fourth-seeded Virginia.
“It’s an opportunity to measure ourselves against the best program in the country, and all our guys are really focused and excited about that opportunity,” Danowski said. “We hope that our guys are relaxed and confident and can go out there and play their best.”