During the regular season, Duke boasted a top-10 defense, holding opponents to fewer than 10 goals a game on average, and against Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals, it did just that again.
The only problem was the the offense could not capitalize.
The No. 2 seeded Blue Devils fell to the third-seeded Fighting Irish 7-6 at home in the confines of Koskinen Stadium Friday night. Any home-field advantage Duke could have enjoyed evaporated immediately after the first faceoff, as the Blue Devils went down early and could never take the lead. Despite beating Notre Dame on the same field in a decisive 11-8 victory during regular-season play, Duke could not overcome strong one-on-one defense from its opponent.
After the Blue Devils evened the score at five midway through the fourth quarter, Ryder Garnsey and Mikey Wynne snagged goals thanks to assists from Brendan Collins with less than three minutes remaining to give the Fighting Irish a two-goal cushion.
But the Blue Devils had one last gasp in them, getting a goal from freshman midfielder Kevin Quigley with just 23 seconds remaining after a critical faceoff win from Kyle Rowe.
Down by one, Rowe won his next faceoff as well. Justin Guterding scooped the ground ball and called timeout. Sophomore midfielder Brad Smith dodged from the top of the box and got inside of the defense, but his shot could not get past All-American goalkeeper Shane Doss. With the ball on the turf, Notre Dame scooped it up and ran out the remaining two seconds on the clock.
“We’re just disappointed,” Blue Devil head coach John Danowski said. “I think we didn’t embrace the atmosphere of the game, but with that being said, the Notre Dame kids were just tougher than us. They out-toughed us in the first half. We didn’t make them slide defensively. I think our defense did an adequate job, holding someone to seven goals in a Division I game, but offensively we fell short.”
After winning the opening faceoff, the Fighting Irish managed to generate a few good looks before getting hit with the shot clock. In a controversial play, Wynne got a feed from Garnsey as the horn sounded, but managed to put his shot past Duke goalkeeper Danny Fowler.
Although the Blue Devils (11-4) would win some faceoffs in their own right and play strong defense to hold Notre Dame, the offense could not generate anything. With the Fighting Irish pressing out physically on defense, star attackmen Guterding and Jack Bruckner were powerless to do anything but roll back and pass to a well-covered teammate after dodging.
That lack of production led to just 13 shots, even fewer coming on goal, to send Duke into the half scoreless.
The Notre Dame offense, by contrast, fared only incrementally better. The Fighting Irish (8-3) converted on one of their two man-up opportunities with a goal from Bryan Costabile. That goal was the second for the freshman after he had tallied another with a shot from the wing with both teams at even strength. He would finish with his first career hat trick on five shots.
“We knew that today was an all-or-nothing game, so we all came out pretty hot,” Costabile said. “We really really wanted this game. We played within our offense and we played everything we were supposed to be doing. I was the one on the receiving end this time.”
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The third quarter was more of a proper battle. After Costabile opened the scoring again with a jump shot that likely hit triple digits on the radar gun, Duke’s offense managed to wake up. Junior Mitch Russell found enough room on the left wing to beat Doss on his off-stick side with Notre Dame's Hugh Crance in the penalty box due to a slashing penalty. After nearly 36 minutes, the Blue Devils found the back of the net.
The second score did not come much later, as Guterding dodged from the same spot Russell was on his goal and proceeded to beat Doss low.
The Blue Devils ripped off two more goals in quick succession to tie the game at four, but could not find a way to take the lead. Bruckner hit two in a row, less than a minute apart, to bring Duke’s offense roaring back. The senior finished with a hat trick on six shots.
“First time we played, we came out really firing the ball,” Bruckner said. “Our middies were dodging hard, but tonight we have to tip our cap to them, honestly they played great.... You really just have to tip your cap to them.”
The Blue Devils could not win faceoffs in critical moments, though, and made just too many mistakes down the stretch, turning the ball over 12 times throughout the game. The defense that held firm for Duke the entire game became susceptible in unsettled situations, and Notre Dame capitalized.
“Both defenses, I thought today, they knew what they didn’t want to give up,” Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan said. “And they were pretty good about not giving up what they wanted to give up. A game like that is the opposite of the first game where guys were getting a lot of great opportunities because there’s a lot of full-field play…. You had to kind of grind out your possessions against two really well-coached defenses.”
Notre Dame will take on No. 4 seed North Carolina Sunday after the Tar Heels fought off a furious comeback from top seed Syracuse to win 16-15 in the first semifinal.