Luck was not on Duke’s side.
Twelve posts hit, a missed empty netter and a goal called back for a Syracuse foul. On the other side, the Orange converted 13 goals off just 24 shots on goal. The Blue Devils could not catch a break.
But sometimes you don’t need luck. You just need to execute a few key plays and for your stars to shine. That’s what then-No. 6 Duke did Sunday afternoon inside the JMA Wireless Dome. In spite of some adversity, it defeated then-No. 20 Syracuse 14-13 thanks to an overtime goal from freshman Charles Balsamo for the program’s first-ever road win against the Orange.
“I thought the whole game, from start to finish, on the offensive side, ball movement was there the whole time. We were in the right spots, right shots, weren't forcing anything. It was just a matter of time until our shots started falling,” junior attacker Brennan O’Neill said afterward.
After trailing 5-1 entering the second quarter, the Blue Devils ticked up their pace, ultimately outshooting the Orange 66-32, before finally going toe to toe with Syracuse in the final minutes. With Duke leading by one with just more than two minutes left, veteran defender and preseason All-ACC selection Kenny Brower was assessed a non-releasable one-minute penalty for a cross-check. Four seconds later, the Orange capitalized to tie the game, then came racing down the field again after winning the faceoff.
Without their best player, the defensive unit needed to hold on for another 56 seconds. Graduate transfer goalkeeper William Helm may have had a shaky outing before, but in that moment he delivered. The Orange passed the ball around, killing clock and waiting for the perfect shot to go up. Then, No. 1 2023 recruit Joey Spallina came streaking toward the goal. Helm was there for the save, but redshirt sophomore Owen Hiltz scooped up the rebound. Hiltz immediately threw the ball back at Helm, but this time the graduate swallowed it up and cleared it. The Blue Devils could not get a goal on the other side, but Helm, who finished with 10 saves, had earned them the right to five more minutes of sudden-death lacrosse.
“Their man-up is terrific … And so, when you’re man-down six times, you're gonna give up some goals,” head coach John Danowski said. “We always tell [our team], no regrets. You’ve got to make the play, whatever that is. Don't think, don't hesitate. If you don't make it, you don't make it. But you’ve got to play to win.”
They had gotten the play to stay in, but now the Blue Devils needed the play to win. Duke dominated out of the brief break, as junior Jake Naso won the faceoff and the Blue Devils immediately got to work picking apart Syracuse’s defense. However, Orange goalkeeper Will Mark, who finished with 22 saves, shut them down to give his team another chance. The Duke defense stood strong again, forcing a weak shot with the play clock threatening to sound that Helm easily saved.
Still, after ripping a shot wide, the Blue Devils struggled to break through Syracuse for a meaningful look at the net. Enter Balsamo. With no other open lanes and no one to pass to, the midfielder drove to the net with the tiniest bit of open space and gained a hair of an advantage past his defender. Then, from a tough low angle, Balsamo shoved the ball toward the opposite corner, barely squeaking by Mark.
“Charles had come off earlier in the third quarter, [and] his body language was not what I liked. And I said, ‘Keep your head up. You're playing in this huge game, and you're doing great,’” Danowski said. “Hey, you missed the shot or did something, [but] then later on, he comes back and makes a play.”
To get to that point, the Blue Devils first had to overcome a 5-1 first-quarter deficit. In 36 seconds just minutes into the second quarter, they scored three goals to come close. First, a quick clear after a forced turnover had Hiltz forced to defend, and as he raced off the field for a substitution, graduate midfielder Garrett Leadmon took advantage of the space to race in for a point-blank goal. On the next possession, the Blue Devils forced another turnover, and O’Neill faked a pass to get the Orange defender to overcommit to the slide. Sophomore Andrew McAdorey was left wide open on the wing, and O’Neill found him for a snipe. Finally, a quick connection between Naso and O’Neill right off the faceoff capped off the run.
Syracuse was able to stay ahead, however, in spite of Duke taking commanding leads in ground balls, shots and caused turnovers, largely because of Mark. Finally, though, the Blue Devils put it all together in the third quarter, holding the Orange scoreless for 18:45 across the third and fourth quarters, scoring six unanswered goals in the process.
“There comes a point where it's like, no matter how many saves someone makes, people are gonna play sick games,” O’Neill said. “You just want to win at the end of the day, and you don't want to think about that type of stuff.”
Naso and O’Neill led the charge in those nearly 19 minutes. Naso, who entered the contest leading the nation in faceoff wins, added to his tally, going 21-of-30 across the game, letting Duke build momentum and keeping the ball out of Syracuse’s hands. In that stretch, Naso won all but one. With possession solidly under Blue Devil control, O’Neill went to work. He had a hand in three of Duke’s six unanswered goals, scoring two goals unassisted during that time and assisting senior attacker Dyson Williams for another. O’Neill finished with four goals and two assists for the game, his third hat trick in six games this season.
Next, Duke welcomes No. 6 Loyola to Koskinen Stadium, where it will have an opportunity for its fourth ranked win of the season.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.