With two minutes left in sudden-death overtime, Cameron Mulé stepped onto the field for the first time all evening.
No. 3 Duke had its first man-up opportunity of the game following a holding penalty on No. 2 Notre Dame, and Mulé was the Blue Devils' man-up specialist. Head coach John Danowski said after the contest that he was hesitant to put Mulé in, given that the senior had done nothing but watch from the sideline to that point. But Danowski asked his players which play they wanted to run, and they chose the one for Mulé. They trusted him.
And they were right.
After some passing around the outside, Mulé quickly cut inside toward the crease. Transfer Michael Sowers delivered the pinpoint pass from behind the cage, and Mulé quickly flipped it in for the game-winning score to cap off Duke's miraculous, come-from-behind 13-12 win Thursday night at Koskinen Stadium.
"Just so excited for [Mulé]," Sowers, who also happens to be roommates with the overtime hero, said. "That's a kid that, in terms of being a senior leader, he does everything right. He works so hard in practice every single day. And he's just everything that you want in a teammate. And for him to get that opportunity tonight, it's just—it's awesome."
In almost every way, Mulé's game-winning score encapsulates what this Blue Devil team is all about.
With Duke (12-1, 4-1 in the ACC) loaded at pretty much every position—especially Mulé's position of attack—there are countless talented players relegated to specialist roles this season. But when it comes down to it, each and every one of them has to be ready for their name to be called at any moment, just like Mulé's was Thursday. And when called upon, he delivered, gifting Duke its third overtime victory of the last month.
"If it comes down to the end, we want the ball in our stick and we're not afraid to make a play," Mulé said of how the team's been so successful in overtime this season. "We're never afraid to go for it in overtime and I think that's really why we came up with these big overtime wins.
"It's a testament to our team's character. We just keep fighting and I think I can say every guy on our roster is OK with having the ball in their stick at the end of the game and making a play. We believe in everyone down to the 56th man, so that's how we get it done."
Despite the eventual outcome, it didn't seem like this contest was going to reach that extra period.
With 8:41 remaining in regulation, Notre Dame (6-2, 2-2) scored to extend its lead to 12-7, with the Fighting Irish looking well on their way to a second decisive victory against the Blue Devils on the year. During the ensuing media timeout, Danowski wasn't even focused on winning the game at hand.
"I was thinking like, 'How does this next eight-and-a-half minutes—how does this help us further down the line during the season?'" Danowski said.
His message to the team was simple.
"I just simply said, 'Hey, let's just win the next 8:41,'" Danowski said. "And that seemed like a tangible goal, whether you win it 1-0 or 2-0. I don't think I was asking them to win it 6-0, but I was asking—let's just go play really hard."
Duke did in fact win the rest of the game 6-0.
Senior midfielder Nakeie Montgomery maneuvered his way in front of the cage for an easy score right out of the timeout, with junior midfielder Owen Caputo and Montgomery adding two more goals at the four-minute and two-minute mark, respectively, to cut Notre Dame's lead to 12-10. But as the clock ticked below one minute and the Fighting Irish's lead held firmly at two, it still didn't seem like it was going to be enough for the Blue Devils to come all the way back.
Then came the Sowers show.
The superstar Princeton transfer showed everyone why he came into the season as the consensus best player in the country, forcing overtime via two superhuman goals with 34 seconds and 14 seconds, respectively, left in regulation.
First, a perfectly-placed left-handed slingshot from up top to cut the Fighting Irish advantage to one. And 20 seconds later, an absolute flamethrower from the left side to even it up.
"Mike's a baller," Mulé said. "I mean, we all know that he can come up big, and we needed some goals in that late fourth quarter. We were trailing and he's our guy, so we gave the ball to him. Today was his day, and he came up big in those last few minutes with some really nice goals."
Sowers, who finished with a team-high four goals to go along with the game-winning assist, was quick to deflect the credit to his teammates.
"I think the cool part, which you might not notice watching it but it'll definitely be apparent on film, for the tying goal [was] the pick set by Owen Caputo...setting a hard pick, making that short stick take a step out and giving me space," Sowers said. "I think that's the kind of hidden play that when we go back and watch it on film, I think that play kind of made that whole thing happen."
While the win keeps Duke firmly atop the ACC standings, there remain concerns coming out of this contest.
For one, the Blue Devils have yet to win a conference game by more than a single goal. And in each of their last two wins, an opponent score with just seconds to go in regulation was somewhat controversially waved off (a likely Virginia game-winner was called off last Thursday due to a crease violation, and a goal by Notre Dame's Pat Kavanagh in the final seconds this week was dismissed after his shoe fell off right before the shot, which by rule requires a stoppage of play).
Furthermore, Duke's performance over the first quarter-and-a-half Thursday was nothing close to that of a team supposed to be a championship favorite. The Fighting Irish bursted out to a 5-0 lead by the early stages of the second quarter, anchored by a 23-3 advantage in total shots and 11-1 edge in shots on goal.
The Blue Devils continued to fight back, however, with Sowers crediting another teammate with keeping everyone focused throughout the night.
"The leadership, particularly from [senior attackman Joe Robertson]—I mean, this is another kind of unseen thing, but after every Notre Dame goal, when momentum was starting to go, Joe-Rob the whole time talking to me and [freshman attackman Brennan O'Neill], 'Keep going, keep going, keep believing. It's coming back our way,'" Sowers said. "Just the little stuff that people don't get to see, but that's the type of kid he is and the type of leader he is."
Duke closes out the regular season May 2 at No. 4 North Carolina.
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