After two years of short-lived play in the NCAA tournament, Duke has finally made it back to the quarterfinals. Now, the Blue Devils will look to avoid another quick departure by notching their first quarterfinal victory since 2014.
Duke will face third-seeded Ohio State Saturday at noon in Hempstead, N.Y., at Shuart Stadium after knocking off sixth-seeded Johns Hopkins 19-6 last week. The unseeded Blue Devils scrimmaged the Buckeyes earlier in the season, but have not faced them in an official game since 2015, when Ohio State eliminated the fifth-seeded defending national champions 16-11 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes, runners-up in the Big Ten tournament, advanced after beating Loyola 7-4 in the opening round.
Saturday’s quarterfinal appearance may come as a mild surprise to those who thought that the relative youth of this year's team might cause some growing pains. Blue Devil head coach John Danowski told his team he thought it would go 7-7 at a meeting before the season started, but is impressed with how the veteran leadership has brought the team together.
"When you’re a freshman, the whole process is strange, new and exciting, and unique, and you don’t really appreciate everything. As a senior, you do, and this senior class has done a phenomenal job from day one, in terms of leadership, in terms of being role models, mentors, for our younger players," Danowski said. "Our younger guys not only really like them but they really respect them, and I know they’ll play their hearts out for them on Saturday.”
In last week’s win against the Blue Jays, Duke dominated every facet of the game and had effectively sealed a victory by halftime. The Blue Devils have now scored 37 goals in their last two games since a lackluster offensive showing in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, a 7-6 defeat to Notre Dame at home.
One of the reasons for Duke’s newfound offensive success has been a faster-paced attack that gets the Blue Devils out ahead of the defense in transition. Junior attackman Justin Guterding tied a career high with 10 points against Johns Hopkins, and redshirt freshman Sean Lowrie recorded his second hat trick of the season through the assistance of a strong second midfield unit.
“They’re a great defensive team," Guterding said of the Buckeyes. "To get to 12,13, 14 goals, we’re going to have to get some in transition. [The goals are] not going to be all in the box. We’re going to have to get a few extra-man, a few off the faceoff, a few off the ride. That’s how you get to 12 and 13 goals.”
Duke (13-4) will have its hands full with the Buckeyes’ defense, which has held 12 of its 18 opponents to single digits and allowed an average of just 8.1 goals per game this season. Juniors Erik Evans and Ben Randall have combined to force 28 turnovers this year for the sixth-ranked scoring defense in the nation. The Blue Devils rank fifth in scoring defense at 7.9 goals allowed per game.
In goal, Ohio State (14-4) has relied upon the solid performance of redshirt senior Tom Carey, who has a .546 save percentage this season and is averaging 7.4 saves per game. In their win against Loyola, the Buckeyes were particularly efficient on defense, giving up only two goals per half despite letting the Greyhounds take 44 shots.
“Offensively, we have to be true to who we are," Danowski said. "We have to be able to win an individual battle and then be able to run past somebody. Then if we can draw a slide, which is not always easy, we’ve got to be able to find the open man. A lot of coaches call it ‘hitting singles’ where we need to just make the easy pass, not make the home-run pass.”
Defensively, the Blue Devils also possess one of the best units in the country, beginning with the starting trio of freshman Joe Giles-Harris, sophomore Cade Van Raaphorst and senior Brian Dunne. Duke has its best goals against average since 2009 and is giving up nearly two fewer goals per game than the 2014 national championship team.
In last week’s game against Johns Hopkins, the Blue Devils gave up just six goals, their second-lowest total this season. The Blue Jays shot a meager 24.0 percent, and Duke goalie Danny Fowler made eight saves in nearly 54 minutes of play for a Blue Devil squad that has evolved significantly since the last time it met the Buckeyes.
“The two base guys, Cade Van Raaphorst and Joe Giles-Harris, have done a phenomenal job. We don’t have to slide to them and they just don’t get beat, so that allows the other guys to relax,” Danowski said. “Brian Dunne is a communicator, and is playing his best lacrosse of his career for us. We’re just different, we have different personnel, we’re more athletic, but yet we still have that experience.”
One of the keys for Duke will be the faceoff circle, where it has enjoyed consistent success thanks to the outstanding play of senior Kyle Rowe. With his 18 faceoff victories last week, Rowe surpassed 800 career faceoff wins, joining just six other players in NCAA history to reach that number. Ohio State, however, boasts senior Jake Withers, who ranks third nationally with a .666 winning percentage at the faceoff X.
“Sometimes, it’s just a matter of matchups,” Danowski said. “Some kids match up really well against others—their styles just match up. Some guys are just feeling it on that particular day. We’re very proud of Kyle and everything that he’s done, so we’re going to go at them with our best guys.”
As the Blue Devils hope to return to the NCAA semifinals for the 11th time under Danowski, their approach has been simple.
“Mostly, we just wanted to go out and play Duke lacrosse. That’s all we cared about is playing our way,” Rowe said. “What happened [last week] on the field happened. I think we were just motivated to play another week with each other.”