Picture this: it's the top two teams in the country, both undefeated, each boasting arguably one of the top two scorers in the country, and they just so happen to be one of college sports' most historic rivals. That should make for a good lacrosse game.
And it was.
In a riveting night at Koskinen Stadium Thursday, No. 1 Duke edged No. 2 North Carolina 12-11 in the first-ever 1 vs. 2 meeting between the two programs. They fought tooth and nail, with most of the game being played at a one-goal margin. And after a back-and-forth grind for 60 minutes filled with highlight-reel goals and clutch saves, the blockbuster matchup went into sudden-death overtime, where it was anyone's game.
That is, until Duke’s Joe Robertson sent a point-blank diving shot into the back of the net with less than a minute left in the first overtime period. Cheers erupted from the home sideline, and the Blue Devils flooded the field—they'd won this historic contest.
"That's the best part about being goalie—you see all that happens in front of you, and to see the whole bench swarm and all the defensemen run to the corner of the field was so awesome, and you're just screaming the whole time," graduate student goaltender Mike Adler said.
Just moments before the winning score, the Blue Devils (10-0, 2-0 in the ACC) were playing their typical zone offense: passing around the outside, waiting for an opening and carrying it in from behind the net after a missed shot. After an unsuccessful pick attempt by Robertson, graduate transfer Michael Sowers passed the ball to Robertson to regroup, with the senior attackman nonchalantly jogging the ball out from behind the net to seemingly restart the team’s passing cycle.
However, the Tar Heel defenseman covering him hesitated for a split second, just long enough for Robertson to take full advantage. He sprinted at the net, and the rest is history.
"[Defenseman JT Giles-Harris] actually called it,” Adler said, referring to their vantage point from the other side of the field. “He was like, ‘Watch, we're going to score right now.’ And he was right."
As for Robertson himself: "I'm probably gonna have to watch [the tape] a little bit more. I kinda blacked out there.”
The goal was Robertson’s fourth of the night to go along with three assists. He led all players Thursday with seven points, his second-highest point total of the season. After missing the entirety of the shortened 2020 campaign to injury, it’s clear Robertson has returned to dominance.
Despite Robertson’s spectacular performance, the game's MVP had to have been Adler. He made a season-high 17 saves, many in make-or-break moments, and kept the Blue Devils in the contest as they adjusted to North Carolina's high-octane play. One stretch late in the first half saw Adler stop a point-blank shot and then another just a second later as the Tar Heels (8-1, 1-1) fired the rebound.
"It gives the defense confidence and allows the defense to relax, to know that you don't have to be perfect playing defense,” head coach John Danowski said of Adler’s play. “That if you do slip up and make a mistake, there's a chance that your goalie's going to bail you out.”
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However, Adler's scarily accurate impression of a brick wall Thursday was not without some mistakes. In one of his rare blunders this season, Adler dropped the ball in overtime while running behind the net after making a save, which nearly cost the Blue Devils the game.
"I didn't know I actually dropped it until JT was like, 'Adler, you dropped the ball!' So my life flashed before my eyes, I ran back in the goal, slipped, and then next thing I know No. 4 for UNC is coming up the hash, and I'm playing with my hand,” Adler said. “I just tried to put a hand up. Luckily, he missed the goal, and [longstick midfielder] Tyler Carpenter did an awesome job of getting the shot backup."
All's well that ends well, as the ensuing clear led to the game-winning possession and Adler's flub became a funny story to tell about the chaotic final moments of a chaotic game.
What lent itself most to the chaos was the skill of the teams involved, both offensively and defensively. Between Duke freshman Brennan O'Neill scoring two goals in 30 seconds early in the third quarter, Tar Heel junior Tanner Cook scoring a one-handed wrap-around goal, fellow Blue Devil freshman Jake Naso continuing his dominance at X with a 62.5% face-off win-rate, the Tar Heels holding Sowers to just one point and both teams effectively shutting the other down offensively in the fourth quarter, it's safe to say that Duke and North Carolina met their match in each other.
"I think offensively, we responded well. But defensively, they're athletic, their goalie is terrific. But I think we handled seeing something different for the first time relatively well," Danowski said. "[North Carolina is] just tremendously talented. They've got a lot of guys who can play, who have experience."
Tenacity ultimately prevailed, though, as the Blue Devils outshot the Tar Heels 6-2 in overtime and maintained the majority of possession throughout the period.
"I think it was a team effort,” Robertson said on overcoming the pressure of overtime. “All around, we had four different guys take shots in overtime, which is really cool. Guys are not afraid to go out there and sling it and try and win the game.”
Overall, the latest installment in the Tobacco Road rivalry delivered on the hype. From killer shots to Adler's season-best performance, this game will go down as one of the best in the rivalry’s history. The biggest takeaway, though, came from Adler:
"It was nuts," he said with an ear-to-ear grin. "But it was so fun. I think everybody had an absolute blast."