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Joe Robertson plays the role of hero again as Duke men's lacrosse takes down No. 3 Virginia

For the second time this season, Joe Robertson clinched the game for the Blue Devils in sudden death overtime.
For the second time this season, Joe Robertson clinched the game for the Blue Devils in sudden death overtime.

Apparently when in overtime, get the ball to Joe Robertson and he’ll come in clutch.

It was nearly an exact replay of Duke’s overtime win against North Carolina April 1: After a big save from goalie Mike Adler, the Blue Devils made their way into the offensive zone, where Robertson, a Virginia native and the team’s senior captain, found the tiniest opening to put the ball in the back of the net and give No. 4 Duke the 13-12 overtime win against No. 3 Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

If he does this again—and with the strength of the ACC this year, another overtime game is certainly possible—we just might have to give him a nickname. The Carolina Hurricanes had “Mr. Game 7”—maybe it’s time for Duke to have “Mr. Overtime.” 

Overall, the game marked the Blue Devils’ fourth straight ACC contest and fourth straight top-five matchup. And after Notre Dame decisively snapped the Blue Devils’ perfect season last Saturday, Duke was hungry to get back on track. 

“ACC games are just incredible college lacrosse games…. Great coaches, great traditions, competitive players,” Duke head coach John Danowski said after Thursday’s win. “That was one of the cleanest, toughest, hardest-fought lacrosse games I've ever been involved with. You’ve got to tip your cap to Virginia. Those kids played their heart out and certainly deserved to win.”

The Blue Devils (11-1, 3-1 in the ACC) haven’t lost to Virginia (9-3, 2-3) in the regular season since 2004, though you wouldn’t have known it from watching Thursday’s game. 

In every way, the Cavaliers brought it to Duke. Dominating for stretches and certainly remaining evenly matched for most of the night, Virginia was far from the easy opponent that its 2-18 record against the Blue Devils in the teams’ last 20 meetings would suggest. Frankly, the game could have gone the other way, and it almost did until a likely game-winning goal for the Cavaliers was waved off for a crease violation with just seven seconds left in regulation. But that’s lacrosse, and while certainly frustrating for the Cavaliers it was at least exciting for those watching at home and from the stands.

Robertson, who finished the night with two goals and three assists, may have been the hero, but he wasn’t the only player who came up big.

Freshman Brennan O’Neill seemed to find his stride in a way he hadn’t in the first three games of conference play. Yes, O’Neill can score and he’s been doing that all year, leading all ACC freshmen in goals. But on Thursday he was fluid, moving into zones of the field he doesn’t normally move to and making an impact even without the ball in his crosse, fighting ground battles and pressuring clears. He even nabbed two assists to go with his hat trick, his first assists since Feb. 27 against Air Force. 

O’Neill’s performance seemed to be part of a larger change in strategy, though. 

One of the biggest things Danowski stressed after Duke’s loss to Notre Dame was the importance of off-ball movement in the offensive zone. While the offense certainly wasn’t perfect against the Cavaliers—the Blue Devils totaled 14 turnovers, many of them in Virginia’s zone—the team seemed to take what Danowski stressed to heart, especially O’Neill and graduate transfer Michael Sowers. 

Instead of passing the ball around the edges looking for an opening, the Blue Devils were creative with the ball. Sowers often came up high, where he hasn’t been seen much this season, while O’Neill, Robertson and the midfielders zipped around to draw the disciplined Cavalier defensemen out of position and get themselves into scoring positions. 

“I thought that defensively, Virginia got us a couple of times, got some really nice inside moves and very physical plays,” Danowski said. “And I thought our guys learned from that…. I thought they learned from their mistakes as the game went on and got better.”

Goaltending was also a strength of the game on both sides. In the end, 99 total shots were taken—49 for Virginia and 50 for Duke—and the two goalies made 16 saves each. However, Adler’s clutch save in overtime proved yet again that he can and will bail the team out in big moments, and is a force to be reckoned with between the pipes. 

While there was a lot to like about the game on the Blue Devils’ end, and it was undoubtedly a better showing than the one last Saturday, the Cavaliers still exposed some of Duke’s weaknesses. For starters, Virginia obliterated the Blue Devils in ground ball battles, picking up an astounding 42 ground balls to Duke’s 25.

Additionally, Cavalier faceoff specialist Petey LaSalla proved to be a tough nut to crack. For the first time since the season opener, when he took one total faceoff, freshman FOGO Jake Naso fell below a .500 win percentage, finishing Thursday’s game 8-of-20. Dan O’Connell, a grad transfer from Holy Cross, didn’t have much luck either at 1-of-5, as LaSalla’s forward exit strategy (which also got him five shots and a goal) became an effective foil to Duke’s previously dominant faceoff game.

Ultimately, though, the Blue Devils hung on and found a way to work together and triumph. Danowski credits that to the players’ mindset throughout the game and throughout the week of practice as they grew from their loss to Notre Dame, a mindset they hope to carry into the future.

“There was this mental toughness, [not] physical toughness, but a mental toughness,” Danowski said. “The guys were extremely disciplined and under control.” 

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