Aaron, Lobb bolster defensive unit for Duke lacrosse in NCAA title repeat
BALTIMORE—On a day when the nation's second-ranked offense was largely contained and occasionally disrupted, Duke was able to find another way to get the job done.
Behind nine saves from sophomore goalkeeper Luke Aaron and a stalwart defensive performance by the back line, the Blue Devils outlasted Notre Dame 11-9 to capture the program's second straight national championship and third in the past five seasons.
Aaron, who became the starter two games into the season but had been relieved in the fourth quarter of the previous two games by junior Kyle Turri, played one of his best games of the season Monday, allowing just four goals through the first three quarters.
"It felt really good. It was one of those things where you have a dream about it for the past decade, dream about it as a little kid, and today it came to fruition," Aaron said. "They hit some tough shots, some great shooters out there, but we kept it together well. It was fun."
Duke led 8-4 heading into the final 15 minutes when Notre Dame began to mount a furious rally, scoring four unanswered goals to cut the deficit to 8-6. With Turri, the starting goalkeeper on last year's national championship team, ready on the sidelines, head coach John Danowski bucked the recent trend and stuck with Aaron for the rest of the game.
"He just seemed to be a little bit more relaxed," Danowski said. "We were certainly ready to pull the trigger if we needed to with Kyle and felt very comfortable with Kyle.... But you know, this is what we've been doing all year. Luke was the starter and he earned that right to be the starter, and so we were going to stay with him as long as it felt right. He made a bunch of saves and was cornering the ball well."
Aaron spent about 30 minutes chatting about Monday's game with Duke sports psychologist Greg Dale Sunday night. The message: don't overthink.
"He basically told me to simplify things and go back to my roots, and most importantly to have fun," Aaron said. "I think it showed out there today."
Duke's defensive unit was masterful in the first quarter, shutting out the Fighting Irish for the first time in a quarter since April 25. Notre Dame did not break through against Aaron and the Blue Devils until 8:05 before halftime.
The chief priority for the defense was making life difficult for Fighting Irish attackman Matt Kavanagh, Notre Dame's leader in both goals and assists. Kavanagh was shadowed for most of the afternoon by senior Henry Lobb, a size mismatch in favor of the Blue Devils. Giving up eight inches to the 6-foot-4 Lobb, Kavanagh was bottled up for most of the afternoon and rarely touched the ball in the first half.
"We tried to limit Kavanagh's touches. We tried to force him underneath," Danowski said. "We played defense [that we called] midnight so that he wouldn't see any daylight. If we forced him underneath, he wouldn't see and he wouldn't dodge."
Kavanagh got the Fighting Irish on the scoreboard in the second quarter but was held largely in check, finishing with two goals and an assist. Lobb, who covered the sophomore and held him without a point in Duke's 15-7 regular-season victory against Notre Dame April 5, picked up three ground balls and forced two turnovers to catalyze the defensive effort.
Turnovers were the Fighting Irish's downfall in the first half, as they committed 11 of their 15 giveaways and took only nine shots. Head coach Kevin Corrigan called the majority of those turnovers "inexplicable" and unforced, but the physical play of Duke's defense kept the ball away from Aaron for much of the first 30 minutes. Chris Hipps caused two more Notre Dame miscues, and former U.S. Army sergeant Casey Carroll scooped up two ground balls. Playing with torn ligaments in his knee, Luke Duprey recorded a ground ball and provided a motivational boost for his teammates.
Seniors Hipps, Lobb and Duprey—as well as the 29-year-old Carroll—were all playing their final games in Duke uniforms, and were able to hold Notre Dame to single-digits for the first time since the semifinals of the ACC tournament. Despite a five-goal surge in the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils held strong through the rally and survived two scares off the post by Sergio Perkovic, and left championship weekend toting a national championship trophy for the second year in a row.
"They did a great job. They made my job a lot easier too, which was awesome," Aaron said. "To send those guys out like that and have them play that way in their final game wasn't surprising in the least bit. We see it every day in practice over the past nine months, since we came together in August. It was an awesome way to send them out."