May 22, 2010

Red-Hot Duke Ousts UNC, Returns to Final Four

by Patrick Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Zach Howell scored a game-high four goals in fifth-seeded Duke's 17-9 triumph of fourth-seeded North Carolina in the NCAA quarterfinals Saturday.

© Kevin P. Tucker

PRINCETON, N.J. -- The Duke men's lacrosse team is back in a familiar setting of the final four.

This time, the Blue Devils might be as poised as ever to finally collect their first national title.

Zach Howell scored four goals and Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani each scored three times, as fifth-seeded Duke obliterated fourth-seeded North Carolina 17-9 in an NCAA quarterfinal Saturday before 8,260 at Princeton Stadium.

Duke (14-4), which has won 12 of 13 since a regular-season loss to North Carolina, will meet Virginia or Stony Brook in next weekend’s semifinals in Baltimore. It’s the fourth straight trip to the semifinals for the Blue Devils.

“Of the four, this is the team that’s trending to excellence when it counts,” Quinzani said. “We’re finding our stride and we’re playing confidence. When we pass it over the midfield line, I look at these two [Crotty and Howell] and I know we’re going to score. I think it’s the first time we hit our stride at this particular time in the season.”

It wasn’t the case earlier, when Duke struggled with the burden of substantial expectations as its final class of fifth-year seniors embarked on their final season.

There were early losses to Notre Dame and Maryland, but a rare loss to the Tar Heels was most telling. Carolina, it seemed, was the team on the rise after a 13-7 throttling of the Blue Devils. Meanwhile, Duke tumbled out of the top 10.

It’s tough to believe now.

The Blue Devils have produced 54 goals in three games this month, an emphatic response to an ACC tournament loss to North Carolina. Their rotating goalies -- junior Mike Rock and freshman Dan Wigrizer -- combined for five saves, more than enough to upend the Tar Heels (13-3).

Then there was the unsettled play. Duke won 17 of 23 faceoffs after the first quarter against Carolina, and produced three pole goals in the process. C.J. Costabile scored twice and grabbed six ground balls, applying pressure every time the Tar Heels had reason to believe there was any hope.

The first rule of Project Mayhem: don't ask questions.

* MD1 Tournament Central
* WD1 Tournament Central

North Carolina closed within 11-8 with 2:50 remaining in the third quarter, offering the possibility of a comeback. Instead, Costabile scored off the next faceoff and Duke rattled off six straight goals to coast into the final four.

It was a sour finish for the Tar Heels, who won their first 10 games while yielding only 70 goals. Coincidentally, they gave up 70 goals in their final six games, including at least 13 in each of the final five games.

“The first 10 games, we played sound defense, and I think we were one of the top defenses out there,” North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. “I think teams just started getting better and playing better offensively and shooting to the right spots. We’re definitely going to revisit that. The last six games of the year, we gave up double digits. That’s something we have to improve on for years to come.”

Still, this had as much to do with Duke’s explosiveness as any of the Tar Heels’ shortcomings.

The Blue Devils made nearly half of their shots, and picked up two-goal contributions from midfielders Steve Schoeffel and Justin Turri. And of course there was the sterling attack spearheaded by Crotty, who added three assists. Quinzani had reason to feel good, too; he’s up to 64 goals, three shy of Zack Greer’s single-season school record set in 2007.

Next up: Another offensively explosive opponent. And while teammates tried to say the right things about who they’d prefer to meet in the semifinals, Quinzani was uninterested in holding back his hope of securing a rematch of Duke’s only stumble in the last two months.

“I’d like Virginia,” Quinzani said mischievously.

But he likes more where the Blue Devils are. They’ve grown throughout the season, perhaps even as the national spotlight ignored them. They don’t enter the final four as a newcomer as in 2005, or under the microscope of being the presumed favorite in recent years.

That, however, doesn’t mean Duke isn’t dangerous. And that’s something else that’s all too familiar, even if the Blue Devils didn’t command the same attention as in regular seasons past.

“When we came out this season, we didn’t live up to our fans' or our own expectations,” Crotty said. “We definitely kind of took the talent and experience we had coming back for granted, just assuming it would mesh. That’s kind of why we had to work through the growing pains at the beginning of the season. You never want to lose, but I think we made the most of those losses and it’s one reason why we are where we are today.”

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