Duke’s dominant history against Virginia is all in the numbers. Twenty-two wins and two losses since 2005. Eighteen straight years without a regular-season defeat.
Make that 19 straight years. On a bluebird Saturday afternoon at a packed Koskinen Stadium, the second-ranked Blue Devils added to that lofty list of exceptional numbers with a 15-14 triumph against the third-ranked Cavaliers. It got testy down the stretch, but late-game defensive discipline and a favorable faceoff balance proved just enough to squeak Duke over the line.
Up 15-14 with a minute to go, the Blue Devils needed a bailout from graduate goalie William Helm, whose exceptional big-body stops closed the book on a valiant Cavalier comeback attempt. As the St. Lawrence transfer pounced over a last-gasp shot and a sea of Duke fans erupted in celebration, the Blue Devils sealed the deal on an all-important season sweep of Virginia that puts them in position to win an ACC title and keeps them unbeaten at home.
“It was probably one of the quicker minutes of my life,” Helm said. “It was up and down the field a couple times and a lot going on. But we knew that was what we were preparing for throughout the week, that it was gonna come down to big moments and the game was gonna be fast.”
For an expansive game played on grass and under an open sky, it often felt like Duke’s attack came straight out of the Canadian box lacrosse playbook. Tight angles, quick-stick passing and a physical offensive style wore the Cavaliers down to the tune of a 10-4 canyon by halftime.
The Blue Devils (11-2, 4-1 in the ACC) floored the gas around the cage throughout the first half and, combined with particularly sharp shooting from the likes of Dyson Williams, Thomas Schelling and Brennan O’Neill, pinned the Cavaliers (8-3, 2-2) to the turf.
In the first quarter alone, Williams curled around the crease completely unmarked and took the feed from Jake Caputo, shimmying past Virginia goalie Matthew Nunes and diving to the floor for a low-handed finish into the bottom corner. O’Neill curled around and flipped a 180, leaping up and rocketing into the top center. A lengthy scuffle around the cage gave the ball to Owen Caputo, whose shot at the top right was parried back for Schelling to quick-stick in.
The Blue Devils’ traditional offensive rhythm, which usually centers around patient passing until an attacker finds some room, never really took hold early on. But when you are up 6-2 against the No. 3 team in the country at the close of the opening period, that hardly matters.
The Cavaliers kept things interesting, though, not least because O’Neill took a hard hit to the leg early in the fourth and slowly walked off the field, forcing the Blue Devils to other attacking options during crunch time.
“We just respect [Virginia] so much,” head coach John Danowski said. “You’re always afraid that if you don't play well, they're gonna embarrass you. In the second half, they really dominated the game.”
That is where Duke’s defense, like it did in the two teams’ previous clash, came to the fore and pushed the Blue Devils over the line. Helm continued to be a source of stability from the back, but Duke’s pressure on the ride proved vital. Up 13-10 and under threat of a Cavalier comeback, the Blue Devils hugged the halfway line and capitalized on an ill-advised offside by a wandering Nunes. Sophomore midfielder Jack Gray picked up the dropped ball and immediately chucked it at an open cage, giving his team the buffer it needed to maintain control.
Tewaaraton Award hopeful Connor Shellenberger — usually Virginia’s attacking stimulus — has been unable to crack the Blue Devil back line throughout his career and was once again held quiet Saturday. Despite averaging 4.7 points per game on the year, good for third nationally, Shellenberger’s three points Saturday bring his career total against Duke to just nine. Three of those were assists in Charlottesville, Va., a couple of weeks ago, and all when defender Kenny Brower was out on a non-releasable man-down.
Brower never saw the penalty box Saturday. And, not coincidentally, Shellenberger’s influence waned.
The Cavaliers’ inability to get anything going from the spot and a stat line so lopsided it could fire an accountant certainly did not help things either. Petey LaSalla — undoubtedly one of college lacrosse’s all-time great FOGOs — was torched over and over again by Jake Naso, sapping Virginia of any rhythm or attacking fluidity.
LaSalla is one of the few players who has consistently outplayed and outlasted Naso at his own game, claiming a third of the nine games in Naso’s career in which the junior was held under .500. By game’s end, Naso had won 21 of his 32 clashes at the center, and LaSalla, despite playing the whole time, never found an answer.
In spite of their commanding halftime lead, the Blue Devils were forced to work for it coming out of the locker room, surrendering three quick goals before getting back on the board through freshman midfielder Charles Balsamo. The leadup to that goal was not without controversy, though, as Virginia defender Scott Bower shoved Aidan Danenza to the ground, prompting a sideline scuffle and a man-up opportunity for the Blue Devils.
Add in a Tyler Carpenter ground ball turned assist to Andrew McAdorey, and Duke’s cushion was restored as quickly as it was punctured.
“They definitely came out with a fire after halftime,” Helm said. “Obviously, they were moving the ball really well and they were getting the looks they were wanting. They're a really good offense and they had some tip-your-cap plays.”
The Blue Devils have a chance for glory April 29 against Syracuse, where a win would ensure a share of the conference title and all but guarantee a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament.
“It's always great to beat them,” Naso said. “They're a phenomenal opponent. Both offensively and defensively, facing off, goalie, everything, you name it. Who knows? We might see them again. But it definitely feels good after today.”
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.