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May 30, 2010

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Duke-UND Final Gives Lacrosse Needed Facelift

by Gary Lambrecht | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Lambrecht Archive

Notre Dame and Duke have guaranteed the lacrosse world a new NCAA Division I champ. They're also diametric opposites in terms of style, writes Gary Lambrecht.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

BALTIMORE, Md. -- When Duke and Notre Dame square off on Monday in a battle for the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse title that no one -- at least outside of South Bend -- could have seen coming three weeks ago, the contest will represent the kind of shift the game needs.

For the first time since 1973, the third year of the modern NCAA tournament, the championship will be decided among two schools that have never won it all. For the first time since 1992, someone with a name other than Syracuse, Princeton, Virginia or Johns Hopkins will be the last team standing.

What a refreshing blast of fresh air for a sport that has sniffed increasing amounts of parity in recent years, except at tournament time for the most part.

And what an intriguing contrast in personalities and style these two contestants offer.

You have fifth-seeded Duke, playing in its fourth consecutive Final Four weekend and second title game in four seasons, the undisputed best program without a big trophy that the game has seen in the past six seasons. You have the run-and-gun Blue Devils, who play faster than anyone this side of Virginia, and don’t mind surrendering goals in bunches, since they usually score more of them in the same fashion.

You have Notre Dame, the unseeded school that leans heavily on the hottest defense in Division I, the team that slipped into the NCAA tournament with a 7-6 record and didn’t even finish .500 in the Big East Conference, the team that may have gotten into the postseason because it whipped Duke, 11-7, in Durham in its season opener more than three months ago.

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

* MD1 Tournament Central
* WD1 Tournament Central

 

 

Duke is most comfortable when its deadly combination of attackmen Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani are leading an offense built on relentless pressure, whether the Blue Devils are feeding off of wicked picks, cuts and passes in a six-on-six game, or digging up loose balls and sprinting up and down the field in transition. Life is best in the land of the unsettled with these guys.

To the Fighting Irish, a great day is one in which they win a close, plodding, low-scoring affair that is dictated by their twin abilities to choke their opponent’s patience with long possessions and smart shots, and above all, to play to that killer 'D.' It starts with intimidating, 6-foot-5 senior goalie Scott Rodgers, but it extends to the long, tall unit in front of him that worships solid positioning, footwork, spacing and communication, and goads opponents into taking low-percentage shots.

Notre Dame would rather let the game find them offensively, while living off the defense that lives to smother. Witness the way close defensemen Kevin Ridgway and Kevin Randall ate up Cornell’s formidable one-two punch of Rob Pannell and Ryan Hurley, who pretty much got their combined two goals and three assists after Saturday’s 12-7 semifinal win over the Big Red had been decided.

You want style differential? Notre Dame has allowed a total of 17 goals in three tournament wins over sixth-seeded Princeton, third-seeded Maryland and seventh-seeded Cornell. Including Duke’s dramatic, 14-13 semifinal victory over top-seeded Virginia on Saturday, the Blue Devils have averaged 17 goals during their current, four-game winning streak.

Fans might not see too many bursts of fireworks at M&T Bank Stadium on Memorial Day. But they should expect a grinding battle over possession time and tempo. They should be entertained while watching one squad trying to impose its will upon the other, in a game that pits gritty against glamorous.

“[Duke] is all about making dynamic plays. If you let a team like that get dynamic plays -- score with fast breaks off of ground balls -- and you try to beat them at their own game, you are not going to win,” said Rodgers, fresh off a 16-save gem that featured eight first-quarter stops against Cornell. “We know what we’re good at, we’re pretty stubborn at what we do, and [Duke] is probably not going to like the way we play. But we’re going to play our game.”

“You really have to be mentally tough against them,” said Duke attackman Zach Howell, alluding to Notre Dame’s skill at keeping the ball away from its opponent for extended stretches and settling in to play defense for long periods of time. “The one thing you can’t do is force the issue [as shooters]. When you force the issue, you take low-percentage shots. When that happens, things tend to shoot out the other end. We have to bear down and not rush.”

It’s hard not to envision Duke finding that critical offensive run it will need to break through and win its first NCAA crown. It’s also hard not to envision Notre Dame keeping its poise well enough to be in position to steal its first title from the more gifted, talented Blue Devils.

All of which adds more intrigue to the kind of refreshing, championship matchup the game of lacrosse needed, and finally got.


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