ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- With 9:55 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday's NCAA tournament quarterfinal, the No. 3 Blue Devils led No. 6 North Carolina, 12-8, and had an opportunity to all but seal the win. Mike Catalino rushed the ball upfield and found Max Quinzani, whose shot struck the crossbar and bounced high into the air.
Freshman Robert Rotanz then sprinted into the middle of the offensive zone, leaped to catch the ball and fired a shot in midair, but Tar Heel goalkeeper James Petracca recovered impressively and made the save.
What followed was a sequence of three North Carolina goals in three minutes to set up a nerve-wracking finale. After looking like they might fade away, the Tar Heels (12-6) came roaring back, and with 6:10 to play, Duke led by just one, 12-11.
But in the final six minutes of action, the Blue Devils showed poise they might not have displayed earlier in the season, and Duke (15-3) held on for the one-goal win at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to advance to its third straight Final Four. Duke will play No. 2 Syracuse Saturday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
After North Carolina scored to cut Duke's lead to one, Sam Payton won a faceoff, and the Blue Devils hung onto the ball for nearly two minutes. Soon after, Petracca was called for a penalty, leaving the Tar Heels shorthanded and chasing the ball during the crucial final minutes. And as soon as North Carolina recovered the ball, defenseman Parker McKee forced a turnover to give the Blue Devils control once again.
Duke kept possession until only 20 seconds remained in the contest, and on his team's hail-mary attempt, North Carolina's Sean Delaney shot wide of goal to ensure the win for Duke.
"I thought our guys played hard-it wasn't always smooth, wasn't easy, but we figured out how to hang in there and how to win, and that might help us in the long run," head coach John Danowski said.
The Blue Devils were led Sunday by senior Ned Crotty, who scored twice and dished out six assists on the day. Crotty leads the nation in scoring with 76 points on the year and will play in his third straight Final Four, but he said getting to the national semifinals this year meant more to him than in the past because of the progress his squad has made. Duke lost to Johns Hopkins by a single goal in the national championship game two seasons ago, and was upset by the Blue Jays in the semifinal round last year, also by one goal.
"[Advancing to the Final Four again] is very fulfilling, and probably much more so than the two that have come before it...simply because of how far we've come," Crotty said. "I don't think anybody ever thought we would be in this position."
While Crotty's offensive exploits helped Duke book its place in Foxborough, the Blue Devils' defense kept the Tar Heels' best scorer, sophomore Billy Bitter, from being much of a factor Sunday. Bitter came into the game having scored 46 goals on the year, and Danowski said he had arguably been the best offensive player in the nation over the last month of the season.
Bitter, however, was kept at bay by Duke defenseman Mike Manley, who man-marked him all game. North Carolina head coach Joe Breschi said Bitter suffered a check early in the game that might have affected his play, but both Breschi and Danowski praised Manley's performance against the dangerous attackman.
"We think the world of Billy Bitter, but we felt really good about Mike Manley," Danowski said. "Mike is one of our unsung heroes."
Gritty performances like the one Manley provided helped the Blue Devils hang on to a lead they nearly relinquished Sunday in Annapolis. And when Duke continues its quest for its first-ever national championship Saturday against No. 2 Syracuse, the Orange will be greeted by a Blue Devil team lacking the star power of the last two seasons. For Duke, that just might be a good thing.
"[Danowski] said after the game that usually we get to the end of the season, to that one-goal game, and we're not used to it," Crotty said. "Last year we were blowing teams out left and right, we got to Hopkins and we didn't have that one-goal game experience. We've had that a couple of times now, we know how to keep our composure and hopefully we can remember it and use it in the Final Four."
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