No. 4 Duke men's lacrosse scores 4 goals, gets shut down by No. 6 Syracuse to drop ACC opener

Benn Johnston jukes out a Princeton defender.
Benn Johnston jukes out a Princeton defender.

On Saturday, Duke raised eyebrows by battering Richmond — the country’s top defense — 12-3 on the Spiders’ home field, dominating in midfield and converting on its limited chances up front. Syracuse was clearly paying attention to that blueprint.

The fourth-ranked Blue Devils were ragdolled by the sixth-ranked Orange inside the JMA Wireless Dome Wednesday evening, getting spiked 10-4 in their ACC opener. Duke endured a nearly two-quarter scoring drought and found the back of the net just twice in a lopsided first half before similarly wasteful third and fourth quarters in which its starting attack line combined for a measly three points.

“I mean, you look at the statistics and you say, ‘wow, that was a really even game,’ but it really wasn't,” said head coach John Danowski. “You got to tip your cap to your opponent. They were terrific … Offensively we struggled but defensively, I thought it was a terrific effort for us.”

The Blue Devils (8-2, 0-1 in the ACC) came into Wednesday’s game ranking first nationally in offense, scoring more than 18 goals per game and having perhaps the country’s most versatile offensive line. But Syracuse (8-2, 1-0) did impeccably to freeze each of Brennan O’Neill, Dyson Williams and Josh Zawada, forcing head coach John Danowski to turn to his midfield and his bench for production. None of the three players on the Blue Devils’ starting attack line scored until 13 minutes into the second half, when Duke was already down 8-2.

“It just didn't look like guys were playing with the same, I don't want to call it swagger, but you need the bravado to play at this level,” Danowski said. “And we just didn't seem to play with that and we didn't seem to have any leadership on the offensive end tonight.”

Owen Hiltz made the Blue Devils pay for their wastefulness early in the third quarter, riding a full-court charge by Jake Stevens for a straightforward finish at the crease. Mason Kohn took 11 seconds to add another Syracuse goal in the second half, building his team’s advantage to a lofty 6-2. Then Jackson Birtwhistle quick-sticked it past freshman goalie Patrick Jameison — pouring lemon juice into Duke’s wound. By the time the Blue Devils answered through Zawada, they had failed to score for more than 24 minutes.

O’Neill finally found his mark with 10:30 left in the fourth, a low bouncer to the bottom-left corner that beat Will Mark. That was the fourth and final goal in a torrid evening for Duke that saw it convert on just 11.1% of its shot attempts, going along with Mark’s impressive 77.8% save rate. Four goals is by far the Blue Devils’ lowest tally this season — a third of the 12 they scored against Penn — and the lowest since losing 14-5 to Maryland in the 2021 Final Four.

Although credit must be given to Syracuse for making the most of its offensive opportunities, criticism must be leveled at the Blue Devils’ inability across the board to take care of the ball. Jameison was solid at clearing but the rest of the group was wasteful with the rock in their sticks, surrendering possession on 19 occasions despite Syracuse only causing six turnovers. A large portion of those giveaways can be attributed to O’Neill’s 10 misses on 11 shots, on top of two slips each by Johnston, Keith Boyer, Jack Pappendick and Aidan Danenza. Attempts that normally hit their targets just couldn’t find their spot, creating a lopsided contest from midway through the first quarter despite both teams logging equal numbers of shots.

“I hope it's on Syracuse’s part, because it was just very disappointing and we haven't looked like that all year,” Danowski said. “Sometimes it is your opponent, and it is what they're doing to you. But our exchange passes, our decision making, even in the huddles, we just looked like the old deer in the headlights.”

Aside from Jameison’s solid showing in goal, the other thing the Blue Devils did well was control the spot, with junior FOGO Jake Naso triumphing on 11 of his 17 restart attempts.

Things started well for Duke when freshman midfielder Benn Johnston scooped up the ball near the sideline and spun past his defender early into the first quarter. He stared down Mark as he sprinted parallel to the goal before unleashing a ruthless right-handed shot that arrowed into the side netting. A man-down period following a Jake Caputo push in the back set up Finn Thomson’s equalizer from way downtown, beating Jameison at the top shelf. Kenny Brower’s own infraction seemingly gave the Orange another chance to capitalize on a Duke error and take a first-quarter lead, but Jameison came up huge with a point-blank save that sent the ball back upfield.

The freshman goaltender did his best to stymie Syracuse from that point on, but some deft finishing by the home team put the Blue Devils behind 3-1 after the opening frame anyway. The standout shots were a stunning low-to-low curler by Michael Leo that snuck past Jameison’s right cleat and a clever twist by Stevens on the fast-break who inevitably found Hiltz at the doorstep. Amid Duke’s empty offense, Jameison was perhaps the only player who could hold his head high after saving 58.3% of the shots he faced.

Duke came out fast in the second quarter. O’Neill looked the other way as he bounced the ball to Andrew McAdorey, whose falling shot zipped past Mark to cut the deficit to one. But just as it did in the first quarter, Syracuse’s elite defense sapped any life from the Blue Devil attack line, forcing a wasted man-up and wild misses from each of O’Neill, Dyson Williams and Alex Slusher. For all Duke’s efforts on cage in the first half — 19 of them, to be exact — only two actually found their target.

“If you hold a very talented team like Syracuse to 10 goals, you would think that it would be competitive into the fourth quarter,” Danowski said. “But clearly, tonight, it was not.”

Duke doesn’t have long to recover, making the trip to Severn, Md., over the weekend for a neutral-site battle with Denver.


Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Recruitment/Social Chair

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and recruitment/social chair of The Chronicle's 120th volume. He was previously sports editor for Volume 119.

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