BALTIMORE -- You didn't need to know anything about lacrosse to know that what Denver was doing was, in the classical sporting sense of the term, art.
Early in the first period, Wesley Berg's spin move led to the first goal of the game. In the second, Tyler Pace jump-cut between two defenders like Barry Sanders with an implement. Late in the third period, Berg flew out from behind the net and contorted a shot across his body -- the kind of seemingly impossible shot lacrosse players this good make look routine. A minute later, there was Jeremy Noble's slot pass to Pace, the result of a rousing stretch of passing play. And then, early in the fourth quarter, Zach Miller caught a pass above his head and, in one fluid motion, wound his stick into a fake-turned shot that flew into the Duke net. The crowd at M&T Bank Stadium -- everyone except Duke fans, maybe -- gave that one a standing ovation.
That closed Duke's once five-goal lead to one, 11-10, with 13:46 left to play. It's hard to say which was more remarkable: that Denver's offense could look that good and still need five goals in five minutes to get back in the game ... or that Duke, with three lightning-quick, fourth-quarter goals, snuffed out the Pioneers so ruthlessly in the final 10 minutes of Saturday's 15-12 national semifinal win.
That's how good Duke is: To beat the Blue Devils, you have to be better than brilliant.
"You might think we get tired of making end-of-the-year speeches after a semifinal loss," said Denver coach Bill Tierney, whose surging program fell in the semifinals for the third time in four years. "But I'll never get tired of those, because all they mean is you lost a lacrosse game at the end of a wonderful journey.
"Duke is a fabulous team. They beat us on the field. [We're] sorry to lose, but we're thrilled to have been in this -- and thrilled to lose, if we have to lose, to a champion team like Duke."
The defending national champion Blue Devils have a chance to win their third NCAA tournament since 2010 on Monday, and somehow even that fact doesn't quite get to the heart of their near-decade-long march through the sport. More than most sports, lacrosse is dominated by a handful of programs, so the standards for dynasties are slightly different. (It is more surprising when Syracuse, Virginia and Johns Hopkins don't show up for the Final Four than when they do, which pretty much sums it up.) But Duke is now in its eighth straight Final Four, and when you factor in the pure randomness of college-aged kids playing a game in front of thousands of people, well, forget the competitive pool. That's insane. It's practically imperial.
Conveniently enough, that's a good way to describe midfielder Myles Jones, Duke's 6-foot-4, 240-pound centerpiece. Jones entered the final weekend of tournament play leading the competition in assists (nine) and points (15). On Saturday he added two goals and an assist. His best pass of the day -- an incisive finesse lob to Duke star Deemer Class -- would have gone for a point, if not for a brilliant goalie save.
Jones stomped on the game literally and figuratively, controlling possession for large stretches and lowering a fourth-quarter shoulder that leveled a Denver defender who made the mistake of getting in his way. Earlier, after Denver had mounted its run, another midfielder shoved and hacked at Jones, who stopped dead, stared his opponent down and whipped a perfectly weighted pass across the face of the goal. If Calvin Johnson played lacrosse, he would look like Jones.
Jones is just a sophomore, and Class -- a speedy, more traditional attacker -- is the vastly more decorated player. Jordan Wolf is among the nation's best, too. And with Josh Dionne -- a major focal point of Duke's attack all season -- sidelined with an injury, Duke slotted in junior Kyle Keenan, who promptly scored a career-high four goals.
"They have so many good players on offense," Noble said. "There's just so many weapons on the field, and anyone on any given day can have a great day. And they all had a great day."
Duke coach John Danowski even switched his goalie in the fourth quarter, bringing in Kyle Turri off the bench to replace Luke Aaron. Turri made a handful of key stops down the stretch.
"The starter kind of lost his fastball, so bring in the reliever," Danowski said. "I don't think there's too much science to it. ... I'm going to say [of] the first 10 goals, they probably got eight dunks."
Mixed sports metaphors aside, the point is that Danowski has so much talent on his squad that he can choose to bring in the proverbial reliever when he needs to and not worry much about the reliever's readiness. He can put Keenan in the lineup and get huge production in place of an ailing star. And his team can weather artful runs from the nation's best offense in time to stamp out any hope in the game's closing minutes.
"Two teams playing a big-time game like that with a total of six turnovers each?" Tierney said. "That's unheard of."
Saturday's second semifinal couldn't quite match the first, though Notre Dame fans might be inclined to disagree. The Irish bum-rushed a hurting Maryland squad early (Charlie Raffa, the nation's best faceoff man, fought through injuries throughout the game) and were never threatened the rest of the way in their 11-6 victory. Matt Kavanagh led Notre Dame with five goals and two assists, bringing his season totals to 40 and 32, respectively.
No matter the outcome, however, Duke knew it would face a fellow ACC opponent, and one it had already handled with relative ease to boot.
"There's certainly some familiarity there," Danowski said.
All of that sets up a Monday title game (1 p.m. ET on ESPN) that very few will expect Duke to lose. And why should they? After taking brilliant Denver's best shot, the Blue Devils are one game away from cementing an ongoing, decade-long dynasty in a sport that knows dominance. All that stands in their way now is a conference rival.