May 19, 2013

Duke Edges Notre Dame to Make Seventh Straight Final Four

by Patrick Stevens | | Live Blog Replay

David Lawson scored the game-winner with 2:16 left, a goal that gave Duke its first lead since the middle of the third quarter.
© AJ Mast

INDIANAPOLIS — There's a sort of predictability to a Duke men's lacrosse season.

Struggle early. Figure things out on the fly. Emerge as one of the four teams left playing on Memorial Day weekend.

Is there some formula coach John Danowski has devised, one that works with all sorts of different teams and keeps producing the same results?

To some extent, there is. And it worked yet again this season.

The Blue Devils reached the NCAA tournament semifinals for the seventh consecutive year Sunday, edging second-seeded Notre Dame 12-11 at Lucas Oil Stadium on midfielder David Lawson's game-winner with less than three minutes remaining.

Seventh-seeded Duke (14-5) will meet unseeded Cornell (14-3) on Saturday in Philadelphia. And yet again, Danowski has guided a team that looked fragile in early March to the sport's biggest stage.

"They never stopped giving us great effort," Danowski said. "What we feared was we were going to lose them. Maybe if we kept losing they weren't going to listen to the coaches. Thankfully, they listened just enough."

The effort was never in question Sunday in a game featuring no lead larger than two goals. Even though Notre Dame built an 11-9 edge in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils maintained the ability to surge back against the Fighting Irish (11-5).

First came a Christian Walsh goal. Then was Duke's defensive play of the day, goalie Kyle Turri's close-range stop of Sean Rogers with 3:30 to go.

"He came around and I just matched his stick," Turri said. "I kept the stick high, saw it all the way and it was really nice to get the last one."

Although he made more saves, Turri was credited with only two on the day. What wasn't in dispute was it was easily his most impressive play of the day, as well as his most important.

Turri sent an outlet pass that set up Josh Dionne's goal 12 seconds later to make it 11-11. Then, Lawson scored the last of his career-high five goals with 2:16 left to hand Duke its first lead since the middle of the third quarter.

Notre Dame never put a shot on Turri the rest of the way, and the Blue Devils were soon celebrating yet another chance to play on the season's final weekend.

"We try not to get nervous about being the first team not to get to a final four under coach Danowski," Lawson said. "We haven't really talked about it, but we're obviously very happy about it."

In the other locker room, there was plenty of frustration for the Fighting Irish. Eliminated from the tournament by Duke for the third time in four years, Notre Dame managed to ignite its scuffling offense but made uncharacteristic mistakes in both the clearing game and on defense.

It was the Irish's second quarterfinal loss in three years, both against Duke.

"We're competing at a very high level right now," Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said. "I'm pleased we're one of a few teams that are year in and year out right now playing at the top-eight level consistently. That's a nice thing for our program, but that's a disappointing thing for our kids because they didn't come here to be No. 8. They came here to win a championship and we're disappointed we're not play for it."

This is arguably the most improbable of Duke's final four runs under Danowski. The Blue Devils haven't been seeded this low in an NCAA tournament since 2002, and their start was slow even by Duke's recent standards.

They were pummeled by Notre Dame and Maryland. They absorbed a five-goal defeat at Penn. There were obvious problems on defense, but the offense wasn't smooth, either.

"I think we were more depressed this year than we were in years past," Danowski said. "We were 2-4 looking at Loyola and Carolina in the next two games. I think it was a taller climb, for sure."

Danowski saw his team giving effort and knew the Blue Devils could reliably count on strong faceoff play from Brendan Fowler that would usually help provide a groundball edge. He wasn't sure how soon things would coalesce.

But there were some doubts.

"You wonder 'Are we saying the right things?'" Danowski said. "We're doing all the things we always taught and maybe this isn't right or maybe the population is changing and we have to reach them in a different way. Sure, you question everything you do."

Ultimately, Duke grew, matured and found its way back to the final four.

And yet again, Danowski's annual method of crafting the Blue Devils paid off despite some February and March stumbles.

"We try to teach the kids to be players," said Danowski, who is 17-5 in the NCAA tournament at Duke. "We try to teach them to use both hands, to shoot with both hands, feed with both hands. We try to teach them to make decisions on their own and at the beginning of the year, that doesn't always work really well. Sometimes when you play teams with really good systems, those systems are better than our decision-making. But as our kids get stronger and learn to trust themselves and each other, we get better."

At this point, that's as predictable as everything else about a Duke's annual season arc.

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