This is the point in the college lacrosse season where everyone starts to pay attention.
Now that basketball season is over and Masters Weekend has passed, teams across the country will play some of their biggest regular season games, dabble in conference tournament play and finally turn their focus to the NCAA tournament.
The more focused lacrosse fans may have been on board since the first games back in February, but now even the casual Duke supporters will be watching as the Blue Devils face key tests in the coming weeks against No. 1 Virginia and No. 10 Denver in the final two regular season contests—plus the ACC tournament sandwiched in between.
But before you go hopping on the championship bandwagon, you may want to consider tempering your expectations for Duke’s postseason. While the Blue Devils will certainly be contenders in both tournaments, there is one critical area that must be improved before they can be expected to compete with the elite teams in the coming weeks—fourth-quarter scoring.
While the team heads into the critical portion of their schedule on a seven game win streak, take a closer look at the opponents during that period. Only one—North Carolina—was ranked higher than Duke, and none of the seven foes are currently slotted higher. These are teams that the Blue Devils should have beaten, and they did so accordingly.
Now, look at the scoring breakdown in those games. Duke did the bulk of its scoring in the first three periods, heading into the fourth quarter with a total scoring margin of plus-33. But the Blue Devils’ total winning margin was only plus-22, meaning that Duke was outscored by 11 goals in the final period of these seven games.
But it doesn’t matter when the goals were scored as long as the game is won, right? All that counts is the tally in the W column at the end, right?
“It doesn’t matter that you’re playing Syracuse, it doesn’t matter that you’re playing Marist, it doesn’t matter that you’re playing Virginia—what matters is that you play the right way all the time,” head coach John Danowski said after his team’s most recent game, Saturday against the Red Foxes.
The important part of that quote is “all the time.” Even if the Blue Devils are winning these games against inferior competition, being outscored significantly in the fourth quarter means they’re not playing the right way all the time. The deficit is a signal that Duke is either shutting down because they think the game is out of reach, or the Blue Devils are running out of steam in the fourth quarter—both cases fuel careless offensive possessions, high turnover rates and defensive lapses that lead to goals.
Beyond simply being outscored in the final period, the fourth quarter represents Duke’s lowest output on the season by a long shot. The Blue Devils have scored a total of 35 goals in the first period, 45 in each of the second and third, and only 26 in the final frame on the year. The goals allowed numbers are much more consistent, so it’s not an issue of opponents scoring more—it’s an issue of Duke scoring less.
Based on the offensive numbers, the Blue Devils have been a three-period team this season. Lately this pattern has been enough to win. But it will not suffice against the likes of Virginia and Denver, and it will certainly pose problems in single-elimination play—especially if the team’s conditioning is at fault for the decline.
Duke has been improving in its late-game play, however, posting two consecutive games with positive fourth-quarter scoring margins after being on the losing end in the final period five consecutive times. The most recent outing against Marist was the only instance during the seven game streak that the Blue Devils found themselves trailing heading into the final 15 minutes, and Duke managed to pull out the comeback victory with a 4-1 fourth quarter.
Playing in front of a shaky goalie rotation, the Blue Devils need to find a way to continue this progress and be more consistent and more reliable on the offensive end if they want to keep winning as the quality of opponents increases significantly in the coming weeks. Their next test comes in the biggest game of the year, against the Cavaliers, Friday night in Charlottesville, Va. For Duke to win, the Blue Devils will need to match the Cavaliers’ potency on the offensive end—for a full 60 minutes.
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