A starting defense that includes a pair of underclassmen and just one senior might not seem to be the most likely group to be extremely disciplined or effective against some of the nation’s top teams.
For the Blue Devils, though, that exact combination is proving to be not just effective, but dominant.
Perhaps the most important factor in No. 10 Duke’s 11-8 win against No. 4 Notre Dame Saturday was the stalwart defensive effort put forth by the top scoring defense in the ACC. The starting trio of freshman JT Giles-Harris, sophomore Cade Van Raaphorst and senior Brian Dunne was nearly flawless through three quarters, working with senior goalkeeper Danny Fowler to hold the Fighting Irish to just two goals in the second and third quarters combined as their team pulled away.
Since allowing 14 goals at then-No. 1 Denver, Feb. 18, the Blue Devils have allowed just 7.4 goals per contest and won seven of eight matchups. And with Duke’s offense firing on all cylinders in recent contests, the team’s defensive improvement could have head coach John Danowski’s squad playing deep into May after two consecutive NCAA tournament first-round losses broke a streak of eight consecutive Final Fours.
“We knew if we did our part, the offense was going to score. They’ve been playing phenomenal for the past couple weeks, so it was just like playing with each other and off of each other, using their momentum to catapult us on defense,” Van Raaphorst said. “It was a good team effort, as far as the chemistry we’re starting to build, and everyone just playing off of each other.”
Entering Saturday’s contest with second place in the ACC on the line, the Blue Devils knew they could be in for a defensive battle.
Notre Dame, known for its physicality on defense, was in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense by allowing just 8.3 goals against per game, just slightly more than Duke’s 8.0. With three primary offensive weapons in midfielder Sergio Perkovic and attackmen Mikey Wynne and Ryder Garnsey who account for almost all the Fighting Irish offense, Fowler and company were aware that containing the trio would be the key to the game.
Perkovic in particular has been a thorn in the Blue Devils’ side of late, heading into the contest with eight goals in his last three matchups against Duke.
“One of the things we were focused on this week was defending the knowns,” said Fowler, who finished with 10 saves, including five in the critical third quarter that saw Duke outscore Notre Dame 4-1. “You know Ryder Garnsey is great [with] low-angle shots and he’s a really good player that knows how to control his body well. Sergio Perkovic is definitely a bull, he’s got a great shot. Mikey Wynne is a great finisher, he’s sneaky and has a very high lacrosse IQ. But we know that we have the athletes to run with anybody defensively, and if we’re giving up shots that I can see and can save, then we have confidence.”
The game did not get off to a great start for the Blue Devils, as Notre Dame scored less than a minute into the contest on an underhanded shot from Wynne. However, the Duke offense picked up the defense almost immediately afterwards, scoring the next four goals to give the Blue Devils some separation and throw the momentum in favor of the home team.
After the first quarter, the Duke defense really began to show its teeth. With Van Raaphorst matched up against Garnsey for much of the game, Notre Dame struggled to get its scorers going outside of the opening period, in which it scored three goals. The Blue Devils closed any open passing lanes and stood up the Fighting Irish when they tried to work the ball inside, keeping them from generating many clean looks—although Notre Dame’s leading trio combined for six goals, the rest of the team had just two tallies on 19 shots.
The Van Raaphorst-Garnsey battle was one of the most critical one-on-one matchups of the game, and even though he did not play much last season, Duke’s sophomore held Notre Dame’s sophomore star to two goals and an assist.
“It was a good matchup. Garnsey is a great player, and he got a couple on me and I got a couple on him,” Van Raaphorst said. “[I] tried to keep my hands on him and push him wide of the goal, before he got above the goal line, and Danny made some great saves on him and bailed me out a couple of times.”
Playing the best lacrosse of his career, Fowler had another day to remember, allowing his defense to press up and take more risks. The Wantagh, N.Y., native put together a game-defining sequence midway through the third quarter. With the Blue Devils leading 9-5, Notre Dame found three clean shots on goal, desperately needing a goal to get back in the contest. But Fowler stood tall and made three impressive saves to keep the margin at four, leading to a Kevin Quigley goal on the next possession to essentially end the game.
In addition to Duke’s defensive starters, the Blue Devil defensive midfielders have been coming into their own. Freshman Terry Lindsay, junior transfer Sean Cerrone and veterans Thomas Zenker and Garrett Van de Ven as well as long-stick midfielder Ethan Powley all made contributions again Saturday to complement Duke’s close defenders.
The result is that the Blue Devils seem to be peaking with the postseason rapidly approaching.
“[The defensive development] is a culmination of a couple of new people.... You’ve got a couple of freshmen, a transfer, a sophomore, who are terrific athletes,” Danowski said. “And then you’ve got guys with experience.... It’s this combination of these older guys who’ve played a lot for us and the younger athletic guys. It’s growing.”
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