Title game mirrors teams' seasons

Notre Dame scratched its way to within a goal, but powerhouse Duke was too good

Originally Published: May 26, 2014
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- It was all there, the whole season, summarized and punctuated in one 60-minute stretch of lacrosse.

On April 19, at the end of the regular season, Notre Dame was 6-5. The Irish were better than their record, to be sure -- they'd lost a couple of one-goal games, including one at Syracuse, yet had beaten Virginia 18-9 -- but the fact remained. Without a win in the first round of an ACC tournament against Maryland, a team that had just won 12-8 in South Bend, the Irish would miss out on the NCAA tournament.

Something about that urgency made Notre Dame a different team. The Irish beat Maryland in the first round of the ACC tournament, 6-5; and then Syracuse in the semifinals, 15-14; and then Army, 18-17, three games decided by the narrowest of margins nonetheless ending in the automatic bid from the best lacrosse league in the country. From there, the Irish only gained steam. They handled Harvard in the NCAA tournament's first round, then held off Albany's dynamic attack in a 14-13 quarterfinals win, then met, and beat, Maryland once more on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeDuke Lacrosse
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesThe Duke Blue Devils' national title win over Notre Dame on Monday was their third in five seasons.

The sluggish start, the gradual ascension, the soaring finish, the suddenly unrecognizable title contender -- it was all there Monday at M&T Bank Stadium, every step of Notre Dame's season.

Including the ending, when Duke was just too good.

"We knew they were going to make a run," said Jordan Wolf, the tournament's most outstanding player. "We just needed a couple of plays to get them off their rhythm a little bit. We just wanted to make a couple more plays at the end. That's what we did."

The Blue Devils' second national title in as many years cements a bona-fide dynasty, even in a sport in which perennial powers make dynasties their modus operandi. In the past eight seasons, Duke hasn't missed a Final Four. For much of that time -- save their breakthrough in 2010 -- the Blue Devils were occasionally chided for getting so close so often but failing to come through. They were the Buffalo Bills of the sport, a program that was clearly better than most, but was missing the only piece of hardware that mattered.

Those days are over now, literally and perceptually. In their imperious run to the national title game, that Bills/bridesmaid narrative all but dropped away. In the first two rounds, Duke dominated Air Force and Johns Hopkins by a combined score of 39-20. On Saturday, they snuffed out Denver's brilliant offense with three late goals. By Saturday night, few expected Duke to get much of a challenge from the Irish. Duke ended the tournament having scored 65 goals while allowing just 70 shots on goal. Only a handful of teams have ever won back-to-back national titles, and most of them are considered among the best ever assembled. Don't the Blue Devils belong in that category?

"We just coach to stay in the moment and to be with these kids and see what we can do and what you can accomplish," coach John Danowski said. "That other stuff is I guess when you retire and you look back and say, yeah, it was pretty cool. But for now, it's just staying in the moment."

For most of Monday afternoon, everything went according to plan. The Blue Devils weren't vintage in the first quarter, but they controlled possession and were defensively sound. They built a 3-0 lead by the 8:25 mark in the second quarter -- when midfielder Myles Jones scored the first of his two goals -- which became a 5-1 halftime gap. The Blue Devils outshot Notre Dame 7-1 in the second quarter. By the 6:40 mark in the third, when Jones scored his second, Duke led 8-2, ND was wasting crucial possessions, and it looked like Danowski's team was going to cruise.

"

We didn't come out prepared to play our best lacrosse. We were just a play or two short.

" -- Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan

"We were so bad in the first half," Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said. "We had 11 turnovers in the first half. That's a game's worth of turnovers. And I'm going to say two of them were forced and a bunch of them were just throwing the ball out of bounds."

It was ugly stuff, the 6-5 regular season of first halves. Which, fittingly, is when Notre Dame, suddenly and visibly urgent once more, played out the final month of its season in the second half.

Sergio Perkovic, a freshman whom Corrigan labeled "one of the best we've ever had" in just his second practice with the team, whipped the second of four massive Pete Sampras-first-serve shots into the Duke net to score the Irish's first goal after halftime. With 90 seconds left in the third, Ben Pridemore scored his first goal of the season, which cut the lead to 8-4. Early in the fourth, ND All-American Matt Kavanagh picked up a loose ball in the corner, skittered to the front of the Duke net, and hurled himself and the ball at the same time. Kavanagh ended up on the ground; the ball ended up in the net. 8-5.

The Notre Dame fans, silent for most of the day, could feel the momentum. The first "Let's Go Irish" chant of the day ensued. Duke was getting sloppier in its passing and shakier on defense. With a man advantage after a pushing penalty on Duke's Will Haus, Kavanagh assisted Perkovic for another of those frightening shots, which closed the lead to two. At 9:56, Duke attackman Jordan Wolf scored his 63rd goal of the season -- which pushed him to second on the all-time ACC points list -- but five seconds later, Notre Dame's faceoff win led to a straight break and an immediate goal.

Duke was turning the ball over at an unusual rate now. Wolf and Jones would both cough it up on ensuing possessions. With five minutes left, Perkovic scored again. The lead was cut to one for the first time since the first quarter. Notre Dame had done more than make it interesting. They turned the national title game into an actual contest, and brought the seemingly unstoppable Blue Devils to the brink of disaster.

[+] EnlargeJohn Danowski
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesDuke coach Jon Danowski hugs senior attackman Jordan Wolf, who was named the tournament's most outstanding player.

"We thought all along that the last 20 minutes of the game were going to be where the game was decided," Corrigan said. "We knew we were deeper, we knew we would be stronger in the last 20 minutes. And we were."

And then, even with another Perkovic goal in the wings, Duke would prove to be too good. As he did on Saturday, Kyle Keenan stepped up at a key time, putting Duke back up two with 2:39 to play. Perkovic would throw in another goal with 49 seconds left, but ND was still trailing by one. Corrigan pulled his goalie and called timeout. Wolf took possession in the corner, guarded by two men. And in one of the most obvious displays of natural talent, Wolf left both defenders in a flash, wheeled in front of the open net, and sealed Duke's victory.

(Duke may have received the benefit of a movement no-call on Brendan Fowler's face-off win. Fowler believed he was in the clear; Corrigan said afterward that he "didn't think there was any question" Fowler jumped early.)

"[We] just played 30 minutes of poor lacrosse to start the game," Corrigan said. "I really -- I don't know what to attribute that to, but it's my responsibility we didn't come out prepared to play our best lacrosse.

"We were just a play or two short."

The result was at once both surprising and expected. After a month of life on the edge, the Irish had one final sprint left in them. It almost caught the Blue Devils flatfooted -- almost.

Instead, that insanely talented Duke team held on to win its third national title in the past five years, and the larger questions about its place in lacrosse history can now safely be asked.

What's more, Duke shows zero signs of slowing down: Danowski will still have Jones and Deemer Class, the two midfield masterminds, returning as juniors next season. Keenan, so key in the Final Four in place of injured senior Josh Dionne, will return. Haus, whose domineering runs from the midfield were Corrigan's chief concern entering the game, is also back. Duke is loaded with premier young players awaiting their shot at big minutes, and top recruiting has made the Blue Devils a Nick Saban-esque model of self-sustaining growth.

However you define the word dynasty, the Blue Devils qualify. They will be favored again next season, and the season after that. This isn't just a dynasty. It's a dynasty in progress.

That Notre Dame so nearly derailed Duke may not be much solace to the Irish right now, but the Irish, so close to missing the tournament in the first place, nearly halted Duke's coronation, and that was a success in and of itself.

"Where we were at the beginning of the year to where we are now, I can't believe how far we've come," Kavanagh said.

A few hours after the game ended, on the east side of M&T Bank Stadium, a little girl in Notre Dame gear was walking with her mother, singing "We Are The Champions." She wasn't totally wrong.

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