Eleven months ago, a fourth-quarter collapse at Arlotta Stadium cost the Blue Devils a berth in the NCAA tournament. With an outright ACC title on the line, a No. 1 ranking to their name and a tough win against preseason title-favorite Virginia in their back pocket this time out, the pieces were all there to shake those demons.
But, for the second-straight year, Duke once again fell short.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in South Bend., Ind., the second-ranked Fighting Irish survived the top-ranked Blue Devils’ second-half comeback bid to win 17-12 to almost certainly move to the top of the rankings come Monday. The loss marks Duke’s second of the year and first since a one-goal defeat at Jacksonville in February.
"We didn't play great," head coach John Danowski said. "We made a couple of mistakes in the subbing game that got us in transition. They took advantage of it."
Though Duke took the first lead through senior midfielder Grant Mitchell, a stingy Notre Dame back line headlined by All-ACC goalie Liam Entenmann made sure Duke’s early advantage never extended beyond its grasp. The senior’s command of the crease kept attackman Dyson Williams — who excels on the perimeter — under wraps and forced the Blue Devils (10-2, 3-1 in the ACC) to largely rely on goals from midfield instead.
The first three Blue Devil goals — which helped Duke to a tight 3-2 advantage by the close of the first quarter — all came from midfield. Mitchell got the party started, followed by two crafty takes from junior Aidan Danenza and freshman Charles Balsamo, bringing the Blue Devils some much-needed offensive fluidity when their main attacking battery of Williams, Brennan O’Neill and Andrew McAdorey wasn’t firing.
As Duke’s attacking engine sparked and sputtered throughout the first half, the Fighting Irish (8-1, 2-1) were off to the races after they capitalized on a fast break to slot the ball past goalie William Helm for a 4-3 lead, their first of the afternoon. A dunk attempt on the crease was stuffed by Helm a few minutes later and it looked as if the Blue Devils were going to make Notre Dame pay, but a ruthless ride put the rock back in Fighting Irish sticks and, within seconds, the Duke net for the third time unanswered.
That was before Tewaaraton Award hopeful Pat Kavanagh dumped salt in the wound. Just over a week prior to Saturday, the Tewaaraton narrative was all O’Neill following his six-goal, three-assist evisceration of then-No. 1 Virginia. But Saturday, Kavanagh’s five-star performance involving three goals and five assists, compounded by Notre Dame’s complete snuffing out of O’Neill, may have changed that.
With the shot clock racing toward zero and the Blue Devil defense holding strong despite Notre Dame’s cannonade, Kavanagh took matters into his own hands. The senior raced in front of goal and whipped his stick over his shoulder, sniping the ball under Helm’s outstretched leg to extend his team’s lead to 6-3. Williams stemmed the Blue Devil bleeding with a tidy finish on the crease, but Kavanagh ripped the gash open again with a lefty, sidearm missile from long range that left Helm no chance.
By the end of a 7-1 pummeling in the second quarter, the Blue Devils entered the locker room with a 9-4 deficit, a leaky backline in need of patchwork, a midfield struggling for control and a disjointed attack with just one goal to its name.
"They're a terrific team, incredibly well-coached," Danowski said. "They had a plan and we dug ourselves a huge hole."
After surrendering a goal to junior midfielder Eric Dobson just 35 seconds after the break, Duke found firmer ground and began its comeback bid. A faceoff violation gave the Blue Devils the ball, allowing midfielder Garrett Leadmon to rip one from a tight angle before O’Neill finally got on the board from close range. Williams curled around the crease to cut the deficit to 12-8. Junior FOGO Jake Naso got the ball and fell down but had just enough time to fling the ball to freshman midfielder Aidan Maguire, who ran the distance and bounced it in.
Just like that, Notre Dame’s once-insurmountable lead was cut to a manageable three. But the Fighting Irish just would not roll over and instead ripped off a 5-0 run that gave them a 17-9 lead which Duke was unable to overcome.
All the more impressive on Notre Dame’s end was its dominance in spite of Naso’s 22-of-32 advantage from the spot. Normally, that kind of discrepancy is a death sentence, but the Fighting Irish made up for it with a case study in merciless shooting and a show-stopping performance by brothers Pat and Chris Kavanagh, who alone combined for eight goals and five assists — more than double what the Blue Devil attack could muster.
"They were great, best players we've seen this year," Danowski said on the duo. "Terrific chemistry, which you'd expect from brothers, but they're just dynamite lacrosse players."
Despite the loss, the ACC race is still wide open for Duke, which has the opportunity to clinch the conference against the third-ranked Cavaliers at home April 15.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.