After passing its first true playoff test with flying colors, the 2021 No. 3 seed Maryland men’s lacrosse team is just two wins away from perfection and college lacrosse immortality.
It was a stressful quarterfinal weekend for many college lacrosse fans, but this year’s powerhouses pulled through.
Championship weekend will feature the nation's top four programs of the tournament field, positioning Maryland with No. 2 Duke for a highly anticipated semifinal matchup. The two blue-bloods will be facing off in the semifinal for the fourth time in 10 years at East Hartford, Connecticut. The winner will face the victor of the North Carolina vs. Virginia semifinal on Memorial day.
Saturday’s game will be streamed on ESPNU and is set to start at 2:30 p.m.
“I think that the confidence is pretty high with this group — but not too high,” said senior midfielder Alex Smith. “And, we understand what we might need to do in order to give ourselves a chance and in order to compete and do it to the best of our ability.”
Duke Blue Devils (14-2) (4-2 ACC)
Head coach John Danowski is easily one of the greatest college lacrosse coaches of all time. Since he inherited the Blue Devil men’s program in 2006, he’s compiled an impressive set of accomplishments to make a case as the sports greatest.
In 11 years with Duke, Danowski has amassed a 193-61 record, four ACC tournament titles, 10 appearances in the NCAA semifinals, five in the NCAA title contest and three national titles in 2010, 2013 and 2014. He’s also garnered the same success with his individual talent throughout his tenure. Danowski’s 78 All-America selections are the most since 2007 and his 45 All-ACC choices and two Tewaaraton Trophy winners have bolstered his legacy as well.
Most recently, in 2019, Danowski became the first Division I coach to garner 400 total wins.
This season, the Blue Devils lost just two games in the regular season. Once to No. 6 seed Notre Dame that the Terps defeated last weekend and once to No. 1 seed North Carolina. Duke faced High Point in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 16-10, however, its second-round matchup was a bit tighter. The Blue Devils defeated Loyola, 10-9, in overtime.
Players to know
“It’s like the NBA All-Star Team, you know? You go out there and it’s like, okay, ‘who do you want to cover? LeBron, or Kevin Durant?” head coach John Tillman said, “I don’t think there’s an easy option, if you’re covering those guys so they present a lot of challenges, individually and then collectively.”
Michael Sowers, graduate attackman, 5-foot-9, 165 lbs, No. 23. Sowers is making the most of his 2021 season after missing out on a potentially historic 2020 season. Before the shutdown last year, Sowers averaged 9.4 points per game (16 goals, 31 assists) — two points higher than any Division I player since 2011 — and led Princeton to a 5-0 start and No. 3 ranking, enough to solidify his spot as a Tewaaraton favorite.
At Duke in 2021, Sowers finds himself surrounded by a more talented offense and still has managed to mark up a Tewaaraton-worthy stat line. With 35 goals and 44 assists, Sowers’ 79 total points are the third-most in the nation, only behind North Carolina attacker Chris Gray and attacker Jared Bernhardt.
“Sowers is a very talented player and getting to guard Jared everyday definitely kind of gives you that sense that you’re prepared and obviously our scout team as well, phenomenal job all year,” said defenseman Brett Makar.
Brennan O’Neill, freshman attackman, 6-foot-2, 230 lbs, No. 34. As the No. 1 ranked freshman coming into the 2021 season, O’Neill has not only lived up to his billing as a freshman, he’s stood out as one of the best attackers in the nation.
The once touted, “Zion Williamson of college lacrosse,” as noted by Inside Lacrosse has a team-high 44 goals on 2.75 goals per game — the 15th best average in the country.
Joe Robertson, senior attackman, 5-foot-11, 180 lbs, No. 8. The senior captain is somewhat of a legend in Durham. With three overtime game-winners in his magical season, with the most recent coming against Loyola in the quarterfinal, Robertson looks to continue to be the guiding force for this high-powered offense. And he may be Duke’s catalyst to success if the game is tight in the closing minutes.
“There are certain guys that seem to shy away from the big moment and he certainly seems to be a guy that relishes the big moment.” Tillman said. “And not every athlete is wired that way so kudos to him for that.”
Clutch. Duke is undefeated in overtime this season, and although their 4-0 record in extra time can largely be attributed to the heroics of scorers like Joe Robertson, their success in late-game situations is especially noteworthy. Whether it’s scoring a handful of goals to erase a deficit or manufacturing a defensive stand late in regulation, the Blue Devil’s are impressively comfortable in crunch time and are brimming with clutch performers. Just ask Virginia, Notre Dame, and North Carolina.
Underplaying competition. In the postseason, No. 2 Duke has struggled a great deal against their two unranked opponents. Against High Point, it faltered late and allowed the Panthers to edge out a respectable 10 goal scoreline. It got worse against Loyola in the following round. Duke failed to extend their lead to two points throughout the contest and allowed a late two-goal run. So far they’ve had it rough in the postseason and will be playing their first ranked side since the regular season. Whether or not Duke has snapped out of its struggles will be one of the biggest questions going into Saturday’s matchup.
Three things to watch
1. How will the classic rivalry unfold? Maryland and Duke obviously have a storied rivalry that transcends lacrosse, but it’s exceptionally fitting that the two sides tend to meet in the semifinal round to battle it out for a title bid. Maryland tends to hold strong against Duke in the postseason, with their success in the past decade especially evident through a 3-1 record against the Blue Devils, snapping a three-game playoff streak with a loss in the 2018 semifinal. That year, Duke was the No. 4 ranked team while Maryland was No. 1. Although Duke is much higher ranked and much more threatening in its 2021 campaign, Maryland is too.
2. Who will win the matchup between Tewaaraton finalists? Bernhardt and Maryland will be facing another Tewaaraton finalist in Sowers. After further bolstering his case as the best in the country with five goals on seven shots against a stout Irish defense, Bernhardt will have another chance to outplay another Tewaaraton finalist in Sowers. However, as always, Bernhardt will be competing for a chance to play on Memorial Day.
3. Will Maryland be ready for another close battle? With the offensive firepower that the two sides have to offer, it’s possible another barnburner is in the cards on Saturday and the two sides have found resounding success in the closing minutes of their games. But someone has to go home Saturday afternoon.
“I think everybody knows we obviously are going to a pretty special place,” Tillman said “... it’s gonna be hard against a great team like Duke but we can do it, so I’m just excited to make sure that Maryland is there. It’s championship weekend so to bring our university, our fans all over, the alums — they’ll be there to be part of that — I think is really special.”