CHAPEL HILL—Expectations have been high for the star-studded Blue Devils all season long. And while the season has been a fairly successful one, it’s becoming evident that Duke is still trying to find its full potential.
The second-ranked Blue Devils wrapped up their regular season Sunday evening as co-champions of the ACC and will unquestionably go into the NCAA tournament as a top-4 seed, however, a disappointing 15-12 loss to No. 3 North Carolina in Kenan Stadium highlighted Duke’s uncertainties heading into May.
Despite winning their eighth conference title and first since 2012, the Blue Devils (12-2, 4-2 in the ACC) finished conference play with a negative goal differential. Now, that’s not a huge area of concern thanks to Duke’s killer instinct late in games—all four of its conference wins came by one goal. It’s also unfair to expect total domination with the entirety of the ACC staying inside the top-10 nationally for most of the year.
But head coach John Danowski’s team hasn’t hit its peak yet, and the season has quickly turned to win or go home.
“We kind of looked at [Sunday’s matchup] as a championship game today,” Danowski said. “That if we had won, we would have been the outright ACC champs but without consequence, so to speak. That you can play in a big stadium with a great crowd on a beautiful day. If you win, it’d be great, but if you lose, you know that you could still play another week.”
Sunday once again proved that momentum has been a two-way runaway train for the Blue Devils this year, though this just wasn’t a hole they could claw their way out of. The Tar Heels (11-2, 4-2 in the ACC) rattled off nine straight goals spanning the end of the first quarter to the beginning of the third and never looked back. Duke outscored its archrivals in three of the four periods but played its worst stretch of lacrosse of the season in the second.
“To maybe stop the run a little bit, we solved their ride and ended up with two really good looks at the goal,” Danowski said on the North Carolina run. “But then we come up with nothing, and not only come up with nothing but don’t even come up with possession of the ball. They just clearly dominated that second quarter and we had no answer. They ran past us, they moved the ball well and certainly got to tip your cap.”
The Blue Devils’ issue of letting their opponents go on long runs stems all the way back to the conference opener against Syracuse, as the Orange utilized a 9-1 run through the second half to almost steal a win. Duke allowed Notre Dame to end the teams’ first battle on a 6-2 spurt in the Blue Devils’ first loss of the season, and then saw the Fighting Irish race out to a 9-3 lead in the second matchup. Danowski’s squad looked in control against Virginia two weeks ago but then surrendered a 7-2 run in what ended as a Duke win in overtime.
Lacrosse is often a game of runs, but the Blue Devils have to figure out a way to stop the bleeding once in a while. Goalie Mike Adler, faceoff specialist Jake Naso and the uber-talented offense are going to occasionally need a pick up and cannot be relied on for big comebacks and runs every game.
It was hard enough in the second quarter Sunday with the Tar Heels dominating on the draws, winning 7-of-8 faceoffs and holding possession for much of the quarter. Adler made some big stops but Collin Krieg matched him in net at every turn for North Carolina. The graduate transfer stopped just five of the 12 shots he faced in the second period.
“He’s a freshman, and this is brand new to [Naso],” Danowski said. “Yes, he was dominated in the first half, but the second half he came back and played really, really well.”
The Blue Devils have the necessary tools to win the program’s fourth national title, but with more talent in the sport than ever before, there’s little margin for error. With star offensive power behind Michael Sowers—who tallied a goal and six assists against the Tar Heels—and company, Duke has the offensive firepower to stay in any game and pounce at the end. However, the physical nature of postseason lacrosse will not allow anyone to coast on through to Memorial Day Weekend.
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“I think we took a couple steps backwards today, to be honest,” Danowski said on if his team is close to reaching its peak. “I’ve never seen us get dominated in that quarter like we were. You’re never quite sure. I know we have two weeks to continue to work and to continue to get better and that will be the focus for sure.”
The Blue Devils will find out their seed and first round opponent for the NCAA tournament Sunday night as they look for a third consecutive Final Four berth.