Dox Aitken had moved within steps of the crease when he unleashed a shot that by all accounts should have given the third-ranked Virginia men’s lacrosse team an overtime win against No. 4 Duke on Thursday night in Charlottesville.

Instead, Duke goalie Mike Adler made a brilliant save, and several minutes later the Blue Devils were celebrating wildly at Klöckner Stadium after Joe Robertson’s goal with 32 seconds remaining gave Duke a 13-12 win and ended Virginia’s four-game winning streak.

The Cavaliers (9-3, 2-3 ACC) had come back from a three-goal deficit to draw even at 7 on Aitken’s second goal of a hat trick, the senior midfielder’s second of the season, with 12:54 left in the third quarter. Aitken also gave Virginia an 11-9 lead with 3:18 to play in the third before the Blue Devils scored three of the next four goals to force overtime.

Virginia Coach Lars Tiffany called it “a tremendous lacrosse game” featuring “so many super talented players on that field for both teams.” And even after its 20th loss in the past 22 games against its nemesis, Virginia is in position to make another run at a national championship thanks in large part to Aitken’s unexpected return.

Aitken, one of the most decorated players in the history of the program, had transferred to Villanova to play wide receiver when the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of the rest of the 2020 lacrosse season after the Cavaliers had played just six games.

But the Football Championship Subdivision wound up scrapping the 2020 fall football season, and with the NCAA granting athletes the option to transfer without sitting out during the pandemic, Aitken elected to go back to the program he had helped to the 2019 national championship.

“Last April I was sitting in my basement thinking I’d never put on a U-Va. lacrosse jersey again,” Aitken said. “Even through the fall I was kind of like, ‘Don’t think I am, right?’ It was only in late December, early January when this opportunity kind of resurfaced, and I definitely have to [pinch] myself sometimes that I came back.”

Before making it official, Aitken spoke to a handful of Virginia graduates who asked him where he would most want to be — on a lacrosse field with the Cavaliers or on a football field at Villanova — if he broke his leg and was unable to participate in sports.

That jarring question got Aitken to consider the camaraderie he had forged with his lacrosse teammates beginning in 2017, when Tiffany left Brown to take over the Cavaliers, who had won just one ACC regular season game in the previous four seasons.

They have since won six such games, including an 18-16 triumph at then-No. 3 North Carolina last Saturday to punctuate the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak. Aitken contributed six goals and three assists during the surge.

His three goals against Duke increased Aitken’s career point total to 169, which ranks 18th in Division I men’s lacrosse history among midfielders. He’s fourth all-time among ACC midfielders in points and seventh at Virginia in goals (133).

It took roughly a month, by Tiffany’s estimation, before Aitken was on his way to regaining the scoring touch that made him a two-time first-team all-American.

“I don’t care. He’s going to figure this out,” Tiffany said of inserting Aitken into the regular rotation even though he barely had time to get reacquainted with the sport and his teammates. “Just keep pushing him out there. Since he’s returned to the old Dox Aitken form, what that’s allowed us to do is be more balanced offensively.”

Following his return to Charlottesville, Aitken had to quarantine for two weeks before being cleared to practice. Before the quarantine, Aitken had to test negative for the coronavirus — and that test took place outside the weight room, where some of his teammates were lifting.

Aitken opened the door a crack to wave, smiling broadly upon seeing all of the familiar faces. Before long, he was able to join them.

“It was just so cool knowing that at some point after the two weeks I was going to be on the field with those guys, some of my best friends, and all those relationships you formed over the first 3½ years of your career are kind of going to be reinstated,” Aitken said. “Having the thought that it might have not happened — definitely filled with emotion, that’s for sure.”

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