On Friday night, Koskinen Stadium was home to the Brennan O’Neill show.
The Duke junior scored the game-winner and three other times as the 16th-ranked Blue Devils fended off Denver, battling to a 14-13 golden-goal victory in overtime.
“Wild,” Duke head coach John Danowski said of the game. “It’s February lacrosse. I don’t think we played particularly great overall, but played well enough to get the win.”
The Blue Devils (3-1) entered the halftime locker room up 6-4 but came out in the third quarter flat. Denver (1-2) scored four goals in the first eight minutes and converted on its first five shots. After the Pioneers’ JJ Sillstrop roofed a shot into the net off a pass from Jake Edinger, the score stood at 9-7 Denver with five minutes to go in the third.
“I think we were disappointed,” said Danowski of his defense. “[Denver] did a really good job in transition and we did a poor job of getting back in the paint, so to speak like in basketball, defending inside out. And that’s something we got to work on and get better at.”
Duke rallied to tie the game, and then O’Neill took over. He first drew a penalty at the very end of the third, allowing Duke to start with the ball and man-up advantage in the fourth. O’Neill then became the beneficiary of his own sacrifice, slotting the ball on the goalkeeper’s short side after a nifty pass from freshman Charles Balsamo to put Duke up 10-9. Later in the fourth, the Bay Shore, N.Y., native dotted a pass to Dyson Williams on the doorstep, and the senior finished to tie the game up at 12-12 and give O’Neill his third assist of the day.
In the dying moments of the fourth, the Blue Devils trailed by one goal. O’Neill, with his back toward the net, turned, leaped and fired a bounce shot past goalkeeper Jack Thompson to tie the game at 13-13 with 19 seconds left. Koskinen exploded.
“I think it started last week [in Jacksonville],” O’Neill said in reference to his team’s fourth-quarter rally. “We had a close game last week and we missed a few plays we shouldn’t have. And that type of stuff gives us experience. It builds character, so this week, we were ready for it.”
Up a man in overtime thanks to a Denver penalty in the final seconds of the fourth, Duke ran its signature man-up play. Switching from a 1-3-2 to a 4-2 overload, Duke midfielder Aidan Danenza cut toward the crease, occupying two defenders. The space created by his movement allowed Balsamo to fire a pass to O’Neill in the slot, who fired the game-winner into the upper right-hand corner. Bedlam ensued as the entire Duke team rushed the field.
“We worked on man-up all week in practice, and I was the beneficiary of good ball movement,” said O’Neill of his last goal. “It helps when you don’t really have to think about it because you rep it out so much.”
Duke started out the afternoon on the right foot, leading at the end of the first quarter thanks to some physical defense and quick ball movement. For example, after forcing a turnover with a hard stick check, the Blue Devils sprinted down the field on the fast break, where sophomore midfielder Andrew McAdorey, who finished with two goals and three assists, quickly found a cutting Williams. The 6-foot-2 senior fired a bouncing shot that found the back of the net, extending the Duke advantage.
Even during its struggles in the third, some of Duke’s best offensive work came thanks to the pick-and-roll duo of Balsamo and O’Neill. Balsamo finished the day with two goals, including a nifty dodge and shot to tie the game at 9-9 in the third and the game-winning assist.
“He’s a terrific player,” said Danowski of Balsamo. “Incredibly mentally and physically tough. To get two [goals] and one [assist] in a game like this is good for him going forward.”
“He’s a beast,” echoed O’Neill. “He’s just awesome to play with. He plays like a senior.”
Duke travels Feb. 25 to battle No. 10 Penn for its second away game of the season. For now, the Blue Devils will enjoy their earned time off before getting back to work.
“We said, ‘You win, you get two days off. If we lose, practice at 10am,’” said Danowski. “And then it’ll be five full days of practice, which is something that we are really looking forward to.”
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