On the surface, it may seem like No. 2-seed Duke is primed to cruise through its first-round NCAA tournament matchup against High Point Sunday at 5 p.m. in Chapel Hill.
The Blue Devils destroyed the Panthers 27-8 in the two teams’ regular-season meeting March 10, with the 27 goals marking the most Duke has scored against a Division I opponent since 1989 and the fifth-most in program history dating back to 1938.
However, High Point also fell just 17-15 to No. 1-seed North Carolina Feb. 16, and just 12-11 to No. 4-seed Virginia March 3. Furthermore, the Panthers are playing their best lacrosse of the season right now, winning seven of their last eight games heading into Sunday’s contest, including an emphatic 11-8 upset win against Richmond in the Southern Conference Championship May 7.
Thus, this is actually a game many across the college lacrosse world are labeling as an upset watch.
“This has got a one-goal game written all over it,” Duke head coach John Danowski said in a Zoom with the media Friday. “This is an NCAA playoff game. And these kids for High Point have nothing to lose and are gonna play their best lacrosse of the year on Sunday, for sure.”
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, are coming off a disappointing 15-12 loss to North Carolina May 2 to end the regular season. But with the ACC opting to go without a men’s lacrosse conference tournament this season, Duke has had a lot of time to use that defeat as fuel heading into the postseason.
“The regular season didn't end the way that we wanted it to, but in a sense it's good because it kind of gives us a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and a little bit of an edge going into the tournament,” senior captain Joe Robertson said. “So practices have definitely been competitive, and everyone kind of has that sense of urgency that now it's playoffs, it’s win or go home.”
In terms of what could be a factor that sends the Blue Devils home with the first-round loss, watch out for the clearing game. Duke ranks a mere 37th in the country with a clearing percentage of .847, while High Point ranks 11th nationally with a .823 opponent clearing percentage. It was a 21-of-29 performance on clears that led to the Blue Devils’ worst performance of the year at Notre Dame April 10, while the Panthers holding the Tar Heels and Cavaliers to 11-of-17 and 20-of-25 on clears, respectively, allowed them to remain competitive against each of those ACC powerhouses.
High Point attackman Asher Nolting is also someone that could play a major role in a Panther upset. Nolting’s 5.23 points per game place him sixth in the country, with the senior notching at least three points in every game this season. But High Point isn’t the only team with a superstar attackman leading its offense.
All eyes will be on Duke’s Michael Sowers Sunday as he appears in his first career NCAA tournament game. Sowers will undoubtedly go down as one of the best players in college lacrosse history—his 369 career points rank third all-time, while his 218 assists rank fourth—but never played in an NCAA tournament game during his first three seasons at Princeton before COVID-19 squashed what seemed to be a likely appearance last year. Now, after a complicated 2020 offseason that saw him transfer to a stacked Blue Devil roster, Sowers will finally get his chance to shine on the sport’s biggest stage.
His impact on Duke’s title chances goes without saying, but another sidestory of Sowers’ play will be the race for the Tewaaraton Award as college lacrosse’s best player. Sowers was named one of the award’s five finalists Friday, but decreased point totals and a few underwhelming performances during conference play have prevented him from being one of the favorites to win it like he was before the 2020 campaign was cut short. If he impresses over the next few weeks and the Blue Devils make a run to Championship Weekend, however, that could easily change before the honor is decided following the NCAA tournament.
If you’ve been following Duke men’s lacrosse over the years, though, you’d know that the Tewaaraton is the last thing on anyone’s mind right now within the program. Rather, Danowski and company remain focused on the opponent in front of them, with the goal of simply staying alive for another weekend.
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“It's a product of all the hard work and effort that we've put in throughout the year, so not just in the spring [but] in the fall,” Robertson said of what drives him and his teammates come NCAA tournament time. “It's a culmination of the entire team's hard work. And I think once the games are on the line, and it's win or go home, you really fall back in your instincts and your fundamentals and that's something that our coaches do a great job of instilling in us. And I think we just try to go out there and soak it in and have fun. The more you have fun and enjoy the moment and the competition, the better you play.”