Through an interesting turn of events, a late-season stumble by Duke could end up costing North Carolina in the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament.
Five days after Duke defeated North Carolina in the ACC tournament final, the Blue Devils lost 15-9 at Denver on April 27, snapping a 10-game winning streak. More importantly, the Pioneers, with senior attackman Mike Matthews registering five goals and two assists, undoubtedly clinched an at-large berth in the NCAA field with the impressive win. Fast forward to Saturday, as the NCAA tournament gets under way with third-seeded ACC champion Duke (13-4) hosting Syracuse (9-7) at noon at Koskinen Stadium and eighth-seeded UNC (11-5) entertaining Denver (8-6) at 7:30 p.m. at Fetzer Field.
“We had to come back after a short week, travel on Thursday and play a game on Friday night against a fired-up team that had to win, with 12,000 fans cheering them on,” Duke coach John Danowski recalled about the Blue Devils loss at Denver. “We didn’t have to win, so maybe we learned something there.”
“You could see that they were hungry,” Duke defensive midfielder CJ Costabile said. “Their backs were against the wall.”
That result sets up two rematches of sorts for this weekend. Duke beat Syracuse 14-8 on April 1 at East Rutherford, N.J., and UNC scrimmaged Denver on Feb. 4 during the preseason.
“Playing Syracuse is good, because it gets the guys focused,” Danowski said. “We didn’t watch the (selection) show, didn’t let the guys watch.”
Instead, Danowski scheduled practice while the NCAA show was airing and didn’t learn the Blue Devils’ tournament schedule until a Duke sports information assistant informed him afterward.
“We were going to get back to work and send a message to our guys,” said Danowski, who led Duke to its only NCAA lacrosse title in 2010.
Before the loss to Denver, Duke was arguably the hottest team in the country, capped by a strong effort in the ACC tournament against Maryland and UNC.
“I think we did play great,” said Costabile, one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, college lacrosse’s national player of the year honor. “I think the ACCs is the best preparation for the NCAA tournament because you play tough, competitive teams in a short amount of time.”
Danowski isn’t worried about the ramifications of a rematch, either.
“There’s only 64 (Division I) clubs, so if you play a really tough schedule, chances are you’ll meet those teams again in the playoffs,” he said. “This is the third time we’ve done that this year. You might like to think that you learn from those experiences.”
UNC, a four-time NCAA champion, got on a late-season roll when coach Joe Brescia changed his starting attack after a March 16 loss to Duke.
“I would say our fortunes changed after the fourth quarter of the Duke game, when we played the first time,” Brescia said. “We were 5-3 and talked about the importance of putting our kids on the field who would generate more offense for us and fewer turnovers.”
Brescia teamed junior attackman Marcus Holman, his leading scorer this season (27 goals, 29 assists, 56 points) with freshmen Joey Sankey and Billy Bitter. UNC promptly won five of its final seven matches and avenged a home loss to Virginia by beating the host Cavaliers during the ACC tournament.
The key, Brescia said, has been Holman.
“Like in any sport, you need a quarterback at the offensive end,” Brescia said. “He’s that guy. He organizes, and he’s working with two freshmen. We play fast, and he’s the one who dictates the flow. Marcus orchestrates it very well and he demands a lot from his teammates. He’s a junior and a captain, so that says a lot about him.”
Holman tuned up for the NCAAs with a big effort, netting six goals and four assists for a career-high 10 points in the Tar Heels’ 19-5 blowout of Michigan last Saturday.
“Our chemistry is really coming together on the offensive end,” Holman said. “For the past three or four weeks, this team has been working hard, in practice and in games. That’s what it takes to win at this level.”