CHAPEL HILL—Facing its largest deficit of the season on slippery turf, Duke seemed sunk.
But in hostile territory against the reigning national champions and their archrival, the inexperienced Blue Devils did not let a potential first-half knockout bury them.
After an early defensive collapse left Duke behind 6-1, tied for its largest deficit of the season, the No. 12 Blue Devils came roaring back, winning seven straight faceoffs in the second and third quarters to seize the momentum and down No. 18 North Carolina 12-8 Sunday evening at Fetzer Field. As its offense started clicking, Duke’s once-leaky defense tightened up, yielding just two goals in the final 42 minutes on the rare occasions it had to defend.
It took the Blue Devils until eight seconds left in the first quarter to take their second shot of the game, but the dynamic duo of Justin Guterding and Jack Bruckner eventually rallied to lead the charge for Duke, combining for 10 points. Guterding scored the go-ahead goal to give the Blue Devils a 9-8 lead with 11 minutes remaining, and added two more goals with less than five minutes left to seal his team’s first ACC win.
“Every weekend is a brand new challenge,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “Being down 6-1 provided us another challenge. Can you just take a deep breath, relax and make one play at a time? Those are the experiences you just can’t duplicate anywhere else but gameday.”
Duke (8-3, 1-1 in the ACC) held the ball for all but 75 seconds of the fourth quarter thanks to senior Kyle Rowe’s dominance at the faceoff X, scoring five unanswered goals, including all three of Guterding’s to close the game. Rowe’s 17-of-24 effort on faceoffs and the team’s defensive adjustments held the Tar Heels (5-5, 0-1) to just nine shots in the second half.
Bruckner, the team’s leading scorer, also chipped in with four goals to anchor the Blue Devils’ scoring attack, including Duke’s second goal of the game that started its 11-2 finish.
“We’ve been playing now together for three years since freshman year and he’s my best friend,” Guterding said of Bruckner. “We just have that mojo I guess. I’ll put it on his stick and he’ll put it in the goal. He’s got probably the best hands in the country. He’s an unbelievable finisher and I love playing with him.”
But it hadn’t always been that easy for Danowski’s team, which struggled mightily on both sides of the ball out of the gates. In the early going, Duke still seemed out of sorts after a crushing loss to then-No. 6 Syracuse last weekend in which it squandered a late 11-9 lead before falling in overtime.
North Carolina had struggled to put the ball in the net all season long, ranking a merely passable 33rd in the nation in scoring, but Duke had no answer for the Tar Heel offense initially.
Six Blue Devil giveaways in first 18 minutes gave North Carolina plenty of opportunities—and it took advantage. The Tar Heels used a balanced offensive attack with five different scorers to take a commanding 6-1 lead early in the second quarter, using screens to confuse a normally physical defense.
To make matter worse, Rowe and his teammates couldn’t secure possessions after faceoffs to start the game. Duke lost six of its first nine draws, not allowing its tattered defense to rest and leading to a 10-2 first-quarter deficit in shots.
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“I tip my cap to Carolina: they had a plan for how we were going to defend,” Danowski said. “Nobody wanted to make a play on defense. Everybody just wanted to cover their own guy and not switch and slide and recover to defend as a group, and Carolina took advantage of that. They shot the ball well, so we deserved to be down [that big].”
But soon after, veteran Thomas Zenker forced North Carolina’s Justin Anderson to turn the ball over, sending the Blue Devils streaking to the net and on an 11-2 run to close the game.
“[The message at halftime] wasn’t about X’s and O’s—it was about just playing,” Danowski said. “We were tentative defensively. We weren’t communicating well, but once we settled in and played, we did better.”
Despite his early struggles, Rowe won the ensuing faceoff and 17 of the next 18 to facilitate Duke’s offense.
North Carolina entered Sunday’s game ranked seventh in the nation in faceoff percentage, but Rowe forced Stephen Kelly out of his job by the fourth quarter with the home team clinging to an 8-7 lead.
“It was a complete team effort,” Rowe said. “On the faceoffs, the wings were unbelievably good tonight. We changed up our strategy a little bit after the first quarter and we started having more success. The communication was great.”
Jack Rowlett replaced Kelly in the fourth, but it made little difference, as Duke ripped off five goals in the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter to send North Carolina fans filing into the aisles early.
After the come-from-behind victory, Duke will return home to take on No. 1 Notre Dame Saturday and will look to carry the momentum into the back half of its conference slate.
“You only have four ACC games,” Danowski said. “You only get four. So the games get more critical. Every other conference in college lacrosse play five. So they all become really important each weekend.”