BALTIMORE — Once again, an NCAA men’s lacrosse title game between Duke and Notre Dame at M&T Bank Stadium came down to a faceoff. And once again, Duke won the decisive faceoff, the game and the national title.
Until the end, though, Duke’s 11-9 victory over the Fighting Irish before 25,587 on Monday didn’t really resemble the teams’ meeting in the 2010 national title game.
That game ended in sudden-death overtime. The Blue Devils won the opening faceoff and scored seconds into the extra period.
Monday’s game had similar drama in the late stages. But, in the first three quarters, Duke had leads of 3-0, 6-1 and 8-3. Yet the Fighting Irish closed to 10-9 following a goal by freshman Sergio Perkovic with 49 seconds to play.
The ensuing faceoff was between Duke senior Brendan Fowler and Notre Dame senior Liam O’Connor.
Had the Fighting Irish (12-6) gotten the ball, two particularly dangerous options — Perkovic and sophomore Matt Kavanagh — were waiting. Perkovic’s goal in the final minute was his fifth of the second half. Kavanagh’s penchant for clutch plays includes three winning goals in overtime in his career and a goal with 6.5 seconds left to defeat Maryland, 6-5, in an ACC tournament semifinal last month.
Neither got the chance at heroics. Fowler won the faceoff, and the Blue Devils (17-3) scored the clinching goal with 23 seconds remaining. For Duke, it was a second consecutive national title and third in five years.
The question was whether Fowler had committed an infraction before the faceoff. Television replays showed Fowler clearly moved before O’Connor did, and it gave Fowler an advantage. What was unclear: Whether Fowler moved before the referees’ whistle. If so, such a violation would have given the ball to the Fighting Irish.
“I didn’t think there was any question” Fowler moved early, Notre Dame Coach Kevin Corrigan said. “But I wasn’t the guy with the whistle.”
Said Duke Coach John Danowski with a smile: “No comment.”
And the clinching goal wasn’t as easy as it may sound. Following a timeout, Duke senior Jordan Wolf inbounded the ball against Notre Dame senior Stephen O’Hara and sophomore Matt Landis, both longstick defenders. O’Hara is a first-team all-American. Landis is one of the best athletes on the team.
Yet Wolf, who had two goals and four assists Monday, is a first-team all-American too. And within seven seconds, Wolf had sped past both defenders and scored in an empty net (the goalie was out of the cage guarding a Duke player). It made up for a shot Wolf took in a similar scenario with 2 minutes 20 seconds to play. Then, Wolf got past his man but his point-blank shot was saved by junior goalie Conor Kelly.
“I missed the one two minutes before,” Wolf said, “so I had to make up for it.”
The game within the game focused on the matchup of Kavanagh and Duke senior Henry Lobb. In their regular season meeting last year, a 13-5 win for Notre Dame, Kavanagh had four goals and an assist. In their regular season meeting this year, Kavanagh was scoreless and the Blue Devils won, 15-7.
Monday’s matchup was close. Kavanagh finished with two goals and an assist but Lobb kept him quiet for long stretches. Lobb practically faceguarded Kavanagh in the hopes Notre Dame would pass the ball elsewhere. It worked.
Late in the second quarter, Notre Dame came steaming toward the Duke goal in a four-on-three break. Kavanagh had eluded Lobb and was screaming for the ball on the right side of the attack. Yet believing that Lobb would be faceguarding Kavanagh, the Notre Dame player with the ball instead passed to junior Conor Doyle on his left. The pass was behind Doyle and went out of bounds as Kavanagh jumped in the air in frustration.
“I wasn’t really getting into the flow of the game,” Kavanagh said. “It’s a credit to them and their defensive scheme.”
Said Lobb: “Matt is a great player, so obviously going into the game he was a big part of our game plan. That was the game plan: make it hard for him to get the ball.”
In the end, the Fighting Irish were left to regret 11 first-half turnovers — “we only played 20 good minutes,” Corrigan said — and the Blue Devils were left to enjoy another national title, a third for Danowski.
“We coach to stay in the moment and be with these kids, and see what stuff we can do and what we can accomplish,” he said. “I guess when you retire you look back and say it was pretty cool. But for now, it’s just staying in the moment.”