On Thursday night down in Durham, the No. 4 Syracuse Orange men’s lacrosse team came up just shy of completing an incredible comeback against ACC foe No. 2 Duke Blue Devils, falling 15-14 in the latest thrilling chapter of this burgeoning lacrosse rivalry.
Down 12-5 late in the first half due mostly to a disastrous disparity at the face-off X, SU went on a furious run that put them in the lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the game.
But Duke scored the final two goals of the game to re-take the lead, and a last-second save by goalie Mike Adler snatched victory away from the Orange, who fell to 4-2 (1-1) on the season.
The Orange were led on the night by attackmen Stephen Rehfuss (3G, 3A) and Chase Scanlan (4G, 1A), with contributions from Tucker Dordevic (1G, 2A), Owen Hiltz (1G, 2A), Brendan Curry (2G) and Owen Seebold (2G). Drake Porter had a strong game in cage, making 13 saves as he was peppered with shots from the Duke offense.
One of the key stories of this game became apparent early on, as Duke FOGO Jake Naso won the first few face-offs with ease over Jakob Phaup. Naso’s domination at the X lasted all game long, as he took every re-start and won 24-of-32. Holding Phaup and Danny Varello to 25 percent set the tone for Duke in the first half, allowing the Devils to wear down the Orange early and build their seven goal lead. On the game, it gave Duke eight extra possessions over SU.
It wasn’t just Naso who started fast for Duke, as star freshman Brennan O’Neill scored 59 seconds in, followed by a Joe Robertson goal less than a minute later.
For a little more than the first quarter, SU was able to stay close as Duke won each face-off. The teams went back and forth until the 11:37 mark of the second, after Seebold scored to tie the game at five.
That’s when Duke started taking over, and the full effect of the face-off dominance (15-of-16 to start the game) was truly felt. Over the next eight minutes, Duke went on a 7-0 run to reach their peak lead of 12-5.
During the first six goals of that Duke run, Syracuse had exactly ZERO, yes ZERO, possessions. At the conclusion of the run, Duke had 12 goals on the scoreboard. At that moment, Syracuse had taken 10 shots in the game.
Those numbers, again: 12 Duke GOALS vs. 10 Syracuse SHOTS.
What exactly could be expected of this Orange team when there was that big a disparity in possession? This SU offense has tons of talent, but they’re powerless when they can’t get the ball in their crosses at all.
The third quarter is where the Orange got themselves off the canvas and started punching back. They outscored Duke 4-1, actually split the face-offs 3-of-6 (thanks to Varello), and took 12 of their 36 total shots all in the third quarter. It was really the meat of a 9-1 Syracuse run that brought the score from 12-5 all the way to 14-13 with SU in the lead.
Dyson Williams scored a man-up goal to tie the game, and then Michael Sowers gave Duke the final margin with 3:25 left.
That sequence did not come without controversy, however, as Sowers’ goal came after a call that I haven’t seen anyone actually identify. A whistle blew just as Brett Kennedy yard-sale checked JT Giles-Harris. After a lengthy explanation that the TV audio didn’t pick up, the referees gave the ball back to Duke. ESPN’s Anish Shroff and Paul Carcaterra, announcing the game remotely, were left as clueless as the rest of us as to why the whistle was blown. The ball was given back to Duke, and they took the lead for good.
The Orange had one final chance after Duke committed a pair of penalties to give SU a 6-on-4 advantage, but with only seconds left. A backhanded flip shot by Stephen Rehfuss was denied at the buzzer by Adler, and Duke escaped.
This was obviously a very disappointing result. We never like to lose to Duke in anything, especially in such tight, heartbreaking fashion.
And while there is one major issue that emerges from this game (face-offs, duh), there are also some bigger, over-arching positives to take away.
Number one, of course, is the toughness and heart Syracuse showed in coming back in this one. At 12-5, the Orange were being embarrassed, even if a major reason for the score was the face-off issue. There were questions about how closely they belonged in the conversation about best teams in the country and national title contenders.
They answered those questions with their second half performance. While far from perfect, the second half showed us that this team is never out of a game, no matter how bad it looks. There is simply too much talent, experience, toughness, and heart on this team for that to happen.
Another big positive was the in-game improvement from the defense. After giving up 12 goals in the first half, the Orange held the same Duke offense to only three goals in the second. In the first half, we saw a lot of the defensive issues we’ve seen all season long: bad off-ball defense and uncertainty with switches the chief culprits. And then there was the issue of trying to stop Michael Sowers. You gotta feel for Mitch Wykoff. I mean, my goodness, Sowers’ quickness is off the charts. No one can stay with him, and in the first half, the team’s attempts to help Wykoff lead to multiple Duke goals.
But the second half was a clear improvement, causing three times as many Duke turnovers as in the first and holding one of the best offenses in the country to three goals in 30 minutes. Additionally, Drake Porter was great, making a ton of difficult saves and helping engineer the comeback from the back end of the field. SU has one of, at least, the best goalies in the country standing between the pipes.
It’s a shame the offense couldn’t do just a little more with possession in the second half. Despite the barn-storming comeback, the team remained sloppy with the ball and gave away opportunities that could have put them over the top.
In the end, a disaster of a day at the X combined with too many turnovers (16) doomed the Orange. But the fact that they were able to fight back and make this a close game despite the big deficiencies is a great sign if we can get those issues cleaned up.
The guys put out an effort worthy of the “Head.Heart.Hustle” moniker on Thursday night. They’ll get ‘em back in May.
It’s going to be a long nine days for Syracuse, as they won’t be back in action until next Saturday, April 3 against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Dome.
That game will be televised on ESPN U at 12 PM on April 3.
Let’s hope the feeling of this loss festers for the team, they have a great week plus of practice, and they come out swinging against the Irish.