Despite a four-goal lead coming out of halftime, Duke found itself up by just one score in the fourth quarter of its NCAA tournament quarterfinal matchup against Johns Hopkins. Just as the script was beginning to flip, it was two goals in under a minute from a rising star from the Lone Star State that clinched the Final Four berth for the Blue Devils.
Nakeie Montgomery came into the NCAA tournament with eight career points. The freshman from Dallas has since added five goals in two games in high leverage moments.
Montgomery— the owner of an eye-popping highlight tape from high school— has come on strong late as he now knows how to leverage his game-breaking athleticism, cutting down on a penchant for overaggresiveness as he made the switch from high school to college lacrosse.
“It’s a huge transition going from playing high school lacrosse in Dallas to playing at the Division I level,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “There’s some things he got away with in high school that you just can’t get away with here… Slowly, he started to do some things in practice that you really like, to doing some things in games, not consistently enough, but he’s earned more and more playing time as the season has gone on.”
Montgomery, ranked as the No. 9 overall recruit for his graduating class by Inside Lacrosse, stands as an example of the growth of lacrosse in areas beyond the east coast, the multisport athlete’s versatility and the Blue Devil coaching staff’s ability to build contributors up and down the roster by May.
Montgomery grew up as a football player. A running back, he originally committed to Duke to play both of his high school sports before settling on lacrosse full time. Those running back instincts were on full display during the midfielder’s two goals against the Blue Jays, showing short area explosion, downhill running and elusiveness in the open field. The football instincts worked against the freshman to start the season, however, as he would dodge hard to the net but leave the ball behind. Montgomery now appears squarely in control having adjusted to the speed of the college game.
“It’s May,” Montgomery said. “We’ve all been here since January 9th, that was our first practice, and now it’s May. Everyone’s grown since then as a player. Everyone’s learned, everyone’s gotten smarter, gotten better. In May, it’s trust at this point…. Having Justin Guterding, one of the greatest college lacrosse players of all time, believe in me, helps me believe in myself."
Dallas is now home to Major League Lacrosse’s Rattlers as the team—which boasts former Blue Devil greats Jordan Wolf and Ned Crotty— moved from Rochester to play its home games in the Cowboys’ practice facility, the Star. The move signals a westward expansion of lacrosse that has seen Denver take home the 2015 NCAA Championship, the University of Utah add lacrosse as a Division I sport beginning next year, and Texas becoming fertile recruiting ground. Four of the top 100 recruits in the class of 2017 were from the Dallas area, a number that could double by the end of this season. The willingness to pull from non-traditional areas has rewarded both Danowski and his opponent, Maryland coach John Tillman, as freshman Bubba Fairman—a Utah native—had five points in his team’s quarterfinal win over Cornell.
It is, of course, the mark of great coaching that enables first-year players to become breakout stars when it matters most, and in Montgomery and fellow freshman Joe Robertson, the Duke coaching staff has done just that.
Just as Myles Jones and Deemer Class emerged as major contributors during their freshman season, which saw the Blue Devils win their second national championship, Montgomery and Robertson have followed suit. Class and Jones combined for 41 points in their first campaign. This year, Montgomery and Robertson have 67 and counting. While the bulk of those tallies have come from Robertson— a traditional attackman from Virginia who was not ranked in the top 100 in his recruiting class and is now second in goals scored for a team in the final four—both players have started at their respective positions since the season opener.
Robertson had his star turn with four goals in a come-from-behind victory against then-No. 4 Denver while Montgomery’s is coming in the NCAA tournament, but both display the promise of many more offensive explosions to come during their time in Durham.
Montgomery and the rest of the Blue Devils will need to fire on all cylinders as they take on No. 1 seed and defending champion Maryland at 2:30 on Saturday in Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
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