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Adler's last-second save pushes Duke men's lacrosse past No. 4 Syracuse in instant classic

Goalie Mike Adler's save at the buzzer clinched the win for the Blue Devils.
Goalie Mike Adler's save at the buzzer clinched the win for the Blue Devils.

With just a second on the clock, Duke clinging onto a one-goal lead and Syracuse on the man-up, Orange All-American Stephen Rehfuss launched a rocket at the net. 

For a brief moment, confusion settled over the field as it seemed Rehfuss scored and pushed the game into overtime at the buzzer. But then, celebration erupted on the Blue Devil sideline. Goalie Mike Adler had made the save, and Duke snagged the win in its ACC opener.

It was a dramatic moment at Koskinen Stadium, a fitting end for the Blue Devils’ most dramatic game of the year. After finishing nearly two months of nonconference play undefeated, No. 2 Duke took down No. 4 Syracuse 15-14 Thursday in a nailbiter that wasn’t decided until the final milliseconds, keeping the Blue Devils’ perfect record intact.

The game marked the seventh time in the two teams' last nine meetings that the winner has triumphed by a single goal, including the fourth straight.

"It's funny, like when you're a kid, right? These are the games you dream about playing in your backyard," graduate transfer Michael Sowers, who led the Blue Devils with three goals and three assists, said. "You just kind of feel a different enthusiasm, a different intensity." 

Those watching felt it too. After a tense start that saw the game tied at five early in the second quarter, Duke (9-0, 1-0 in the ACC) took off running and scored seven unanswered goals to make it 12-5 with three minutes to go until halftime. But the Orange then held the Blue Devils scoreless for 12 minutes and 43 seconds, clawing their way back into the game with six unanswered goals of their own to cut their deficit to 12-11.

By the time there were seven minutes left in the contest, Syracuse (4-2, 1-1) led 14-13, and Duke was looking at its first late-game deficit of the season. 

"[The key is] falling back on our fundamentals, and we did the opposite,” Sowers said. “And I think you saw the results—12 goals in the first half, three goals in the second half.”

However, after over 20 minutes of Orange domination, the Blue Devils caught a lucky break—Syracuse committed a penalty, and Duke went on the man-up. Sophomore Dyson Williams, the Blue Devils’ leading scorer last season, then promptly found the back of the net to tie the game. Now, it was just a race to the go-ahead goal. 

And who better than Sowers to end up scoring that goal, notching what ended up being the game-winner with 3:25 remaining.

The Pennsylvania native, who entered the season ranked second in NCAA Division I history in points per game, came to Duke for these moments. And Thursday night, he delivered.

Another storyline of the game was the battle of the freshmen, with Duke and Syracuse boasting the No. 1 and No. 2 recruits of the incoming class in Brennan O'Neill and Owen Hiltz, respectively. O'Neill secured his fifth hat trick of the season Thursday, while Hiltz scored a goal and two assists for the Orange. 

The lynchpin for Duke's victory, however, was another freshman: face-off specialist Jake Naso. 

Naso won 16-of-20 face-offs in the first half, a huge factor in Duke’s seven-goal tear in the second quarter. He finished the night 24-of-32, his highest number of total face-off wins in a game this season. The performance moved him into a tie for second in the country in that department. 

To top it off, Naso scooped up a season-high 14 ground balls and scored a goal after rushing the net off a face-off win. Put simply, the Blue Devils don't get enough possession of the ball and don't win without Naso playing arguably his best game of the season. 

"We're as surprised as anybody," head coach John Danowski said of Naso's incredible play this season. "First game of the season, he took one draw, and he violated...he wasn't in our plan…. But playing in the bright lights, playing in a big game...he continues to evolve his progress."

Overall, despite a rocky middle stretch, Duke closed the night with a good team win. Four separate players posted multiple goals—Sowers, O'Neill, Williams and senior Joe Roberton—and other players like Naso, Adler and graduate student defenseman JT Giles-Harris came up big in critical moments to carry the Blue Devils to the finish line. 

And while this game was certainly many things—nerve-racking and scrappy come to mind, and a signal of what's to come for the rest of ACC play—perhaps Danowski put it best:

"It's exciting. It's so much fun." 

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