Brennan O’Neill was simply unstoppable.
The Tewaaraton Award finalist played his best game of the season when it mattered most Saturday, scoring six goals as No. 1-seed Duke picked up a monumental 15-8 victory against Michigan. Even as torrents of rain fell onto the neutral-site turf field in Albany, N.Y., the Blue Devil offense hummed along, with Dyson Williams and Andrew McAdorey also picking up hat tricks. A run in the second quarter gave Duke the needed separation, and its defensive prowess never never allowed its lead to shrink to below four goals for the entire second half.
“We’re proud of our guys,” head coach John Danowski said of his team after the game. “I thought our guys handled all the game prep in terms of the Xs and Os, and you know what we want to accomplish. And I’m excited to be together with them for another week.”
The Blue Devils jumped out to an immediate 2-0 lead thanks to O’Neill. From behind the goal, O’Neill dodged right, beating defender Andrew Darby of Michigan to the crease before niftily slotting the ball into the goal. A few minutes later, O’Neill doubled the advantage after scooping a chaotic ground ball. He ran downhill and fired his second shot past Michigan goalie Hunter Taylor.
“Playoffs have a different atmosphere. I think we were very tense last week,” O’Neill said of his team’s attitude. “Guys were even saying in the locker room, ‘after you get that one under the belt, you feel good.’ And you know what to expect. I think there was a little more calm this week, so it was nice.”
Even with the fast start, Duke cooled down in part due to costly slashing and offsides penalties. Michigan was able to even it up by the end of the quarter after a miscommunication left Wolverine attackman Bryce Clay alone on the doorstep for a quick catch and score. However, Duke freshman Aidan Maguire created momentum at the start of the second quarter when he checked and dispossessed Michigan. Maguire then raced down the field, and with the four-on-three advantage, Williams caught the pass and bounced a shot low and into the corner for the 3-2 lead. That play ignited a 5-1 run for the Blue Devils, which included two goals apiece for O’Neill and McAdorey.
“I think the short-stick [defensive] middies are gaining experience each week,” said Danowski of that critical unit. “Aidan Maguire, Jack Gray … those guys are all getting better.”
Duke goalie William Helm also proved his mettle and mental toughness. Bouncing back after a difficult performance against Delaware last weekend, the graduate student made 14 saves on 22 shots against a Michigan team averaging 13.9 goals per game on the year. One of his most impressive saves came right before halftime, as he denied Michael Boehm while Michigan was up a man to preserve the Blue Devils’ three-goal advantage. Helm also made two impressive saves at the start of the fourth quarter, denying Emmett Houlihan and Jake Bonomi, snuffing out any hope of a late rally.
“William (Helm) was seeing the ball real well,” said Danowski of his goalie. “It’s not easy to come home and play because you want to be perfect and want to play great in front of your friends and family and where you grew up. Certainly it was one of his best performances of the season.”
After halftime, Duke continued its dominance on the offensive end, always finding an answer when Michigan was able to convert. After Michigan’s Peter Thomposn set his feet from the left side of the goal and fired a quick shot into the upper far right corner on a man advantage play, Duke came back down the other end. Williams then slotted his 56th goal of the season home in a similar style, firing from the right side into the upper left hand corner of the net.
Early in the fourth, O’Neill delivered the knockout blow. Dodging from behind the crease, he dealt with the back pressure from Darby by firing an over-the-shoulder, no-look bounce shot between the legs of Taylor and into the back of the net. O’Neill’s 51st goal of the season, worthy of a spot on the SportsCenter Top 10, put the Blue Devils up five goals with less than ten minutes to go.
“I got to five [goals] and five [shots], you know, it’s something that we pride ourselves on here. So you know, just having fun with it…I just felt like it was a good time to do it” O’Neill said of his goal.
Up next, the Blue Devils travel to Philadelphia for an NCAA semifinal matchup against one of Army or No. 5-seed Penn State Saturday.
“We are more hungry this time around,” said O’Neill. “When you go to a school with history … that really motivated us this whole season. The guys are great. And this year, it’s special too.”
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