Freshman Charles Balsamo dragged the back of his thumb across his neck. Collecting a pass from senior attacker Dyson Williams from behind the net with 32 seconds left, Balsamo scored on the man-up to ice the game 18-14. Well, almost.
Head coach John Danowski wasn’t happy about the celebration, and neither were the refs. Balsamo was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that the Orange converted on, and graduate captain Wilson Stephenson went to the box to talk to him, presumably to dole out some big-brotherly advice.
But even if the gesture was unsportsmanlike, it was fitting for what the second-ranked Blue Devils had just done in their conference finale at Koskinen Stadium. After beating No. 15 Syracuse 18-15 Saturday afternoon, they clinched a share of the ACC title and let the rest of the lacrosse world know that, a year removed from missing the NCAA tournament entirely, Duke was out for blood.
“It's just one of those games: Great energy in Koskinen Stadium, last regular-season home game. So I think our team honestly fed off the energy of the crowd and on the sideline,” Williams said after the game.
“[Clinching the ACC is] cool, for sure, it's just more important that we got the dub. Putting up 18 against an ACC team is no easy task. So I think that the success that we had today was important for our confidence moving forward,” he added.
Though Balsamo ended the game, Williams was the dealer of most of the game’s heroics.
After playing the best they could ask for in the third, the Blue Devils (12-2, 5-1 in the ACC) gave up four straight goals in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. Junior FOGO Jake Naso struggled at the dot, and graduate goalie Andrew Bonafede, who subbed in for Will Helm midway through the second quarter, struggled to stop the lasers the Orange (8-7, 1-5) were throwing at him. Duke then caught a lucky break in the form of a slashing penalty.
Balsamo fumbled the feed inside because of a stick check, but Williams darted in to scoop up the rebound and pop the ball past Syracuse goalie Will Mark. That was his sixth goal, but he had enough gas left in the tank to assist Duke’s 18th goal a few minutes later for a game-leading seven points on the day.
“[Assistant coach] Matt Danowski does a really nice job in the box offensively of creating opportunities for guys,” John Danowski said after the game. “I said to the team afterwards, Dyson could have had eight or nine today.”
Williams got started early, opening the game’s scoring in signature fashion with a quick finish right in front of the crease, but the Orange responded in kind not 30 seconds later. The back-and-forth continued until the Blue Devils finally broke through to a two-goal lead right at the close of the quarter. First, with just under three minutes to go, sophomore attacker Andrew McAdorey potted his second of the day to take a 4-3 lead. Then, curling around the back of the net, graduate transfer Thomas Schelling spun at the perfect moment right at the crease and his defender stumbled past him, giving him a point-blank look at the net and his sixth goal of the season.
It took Williams just under a minute in the second to continue that momentum and bring Duke’s lead to three, but his prettiest goal wouldn’t come until the third quarter. The period lacked much of the urgency of the first half, as the Blue Devils settled into lead-protection mode, exercising patience in transition, instead opting to wait for open looks in their set offense.
But waiting for opportunities comes with risk, and after a shot went wide with just seconds on the shot clock, the Blue Devils’ possession was all but over unless they could get off a hail mary shot on an inbounds pass. Chest completely turned to Schelling on the sideline, Williams answered the call, launching a missile of a behind-the-back as the shot clock threatened to expire to put Duke up five.
“Growing up in the backyard, you get used to throwing those kinds of shots,” Williams said. “But late in the shot clock, you have more freedom to throw cooler shots at the net just to get them off before the shot clock goes out. So credit to Tommy Schelling for a great feed…and [I’m] lucky enough it went in.”
Williams wasn’t the only Blue Devil to play the hero, though. Junior attacker Brennan O’Neill, second on the team in goals behind Williams but first in points, notched four goals and two assists, including a crucial pair of unassisted goals in the second quarter to take back control after the Orange began to rally.
At the end of the day, the Blue Devils’ biggest advantage may have been Syracuse’s mistakes. A series of faceoff violations ended that rally as soon as it began, giving the Blue Devils ample opportunity to earn back their lead, which they did. The Orange also got called for six total penalties, two of which gave Duke a two-man-up advantage. The Blue Devils scored three extra-man goals, two of which came from Williams, while Syracuse only had one until the garbage-time goal that came during Balsamo’s penalty.
With their conference slate completed, the Blue Devils will take on Merrimack on Long Island at Bethpage High School in Bethpage, N.Y. Then, it’s time for the NCAA tournament, where Duke will likely earn a top-two seed and look to make even more of the incredible season it's had so far.
“It's been wonderful, to be honest. From the day they came back to campus…they have really been driven as a group,” John Danowski said of the team’s season so far and looking toward the postseason. “These guys really like each other, and I want to continue to build on…the team chemistry, the team dynamic, and that everybody has a role, everybody is important.”
Editor's note: This piece, originally published Saturday evening, stated that Duke clinched a share of the conference title after its Saturday win. It has been updated Sunday 5:30 p.m. following Virginia's win against Notre Dame, when the Blue Devils became outright conference champions.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.