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Duke Maryland lacrosse Final Four preview
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Duke vs. Maryland, NCAA DI Men’s Final Four Preview

The Duke-Maryland lacrosse rivalry is back!

Memorial Day Weekend is right around the corner, and that means the stakes can’t be higher in college lacrosse. One of the multiple tournaments that will conclude this weekend is men’s Division I, and we have some heavyweights set to compete in the Final Four.

It doesn’t get much bigger than Duke and Maryland, and it doesn’t get much more important than a national semifinal. So, what can we expect from this massive matchup?

#2 Duke (14-2) vs. #3 Maryland (14-0): NCAA DI Men’s Lacrosse Final Four Preview

How’d We Get Here?

The second semifinal of the 2021 NCAA Lacrosse Championships is a game that many might’ve predicted as the title matchup before the season. Honestly, this feels like it could be the title game still, were it not for the committee’s decision to drop Maryland to the No. 3 spot. Duke, one of the two ACC co-champions alongside UNC, has the potential to be the best of the ACC, whereas Maryland feels like the leader of The Field, in terms of getting a non-ACC team a title this season. 

Should Maryland go on to win a national championship on Memorial Day, it’ll do so having gone through three-fifths of the ACC along the way. After an opening round win over Vermont, Notre Dame took Maryland to OT, but the Terps came out on top. With Duke up next, and a guaranteed ACC opponent waiting in the final, Maryland will have faced more than its share of top-tier competition en route to a theoretical championship. That’s plenty of proving their chops from a team that was (fairly or unfairly) dinged for a conference-only schedule this season. 

Meanwhile, Duke is attempting to live up to its otherworldly expectations after adding both superstar grad transfer Michael Sowers and freshman phenom Brennan O’Neill in the offseason. The Blue Devils have looked more mortal than many expected, but they still have just two losses on the year at the hands of No. 1 UNC and No. 6 Notre Dame. Duke finally let Michael Sowers cook in the first round as he exploded for eight points in the Blue Devils’ win over High Point. Duke, too, was taken to overtime in the quarterfinals, as Loyola made a furious upset bid. But once again, OT legend Joe Robertson won the game in extra time with a hero-ball isolation play.

Who Are the Guys on Offense?

Both of these teams are hilariously deep, and there are a zillion threats on each team, so we’ll just talk about their top guys here. 

For Duke, everything starts with Sowers. The fifth-year senior is playing in his first-ever playoffs, having missed the tournament with Princeton for his first three years before having the fourth cancelled. Sowers might not be lighting stat sheets on fire like he was for the Tigers in 2020, but he’s still third in the nation with 79 points. In any playoff format, it’s important to ask who could be the best player in any game, and Sowers has the potential to be the best player in any matchup if he’s on. 

The same is true for Maryland and presumptive Tewaaraton favorite Jared Bernhardt, who leads the nation in points with 87, despite playing one fewer game than both Sowers and UNC’s Chris Gray. Simply put, Bernhardt has been the most dominant force in college lacrosse this season. He’s shooting a stupidly-high 53% on nearly nine shots per game. He had 12 points in the first two Maryland tournament games, 11 of which were goals. Against Notre Dame (who beat Duke previously) in the quarterfinals, he had five goals on seven shots. Nobody has been a scarier matchup than JB1.

If we go to their seconds, so to speak, we find guys who could easily be the No. 1 option on most other teams in the country. O’Neill has absolutely lived up to the hype as the “Zion Williamson of lacrosse” this season. His 54 points (44G, 10A) are tied for second among the Blue Devils, but his impact goes beyond that. He’s such a threat as an outside shooter that he alters the shape of a defense, forcing longer slides to prevent him from simply gunning away. On the other side of things, Logan Wisnauskas is a criminally-underrated player even as a Third Team All-American. He’s a balanced threat, with a fantastic shot that can turn into a feed at any second. Duke better hope that it’s been hitting the weight room, because both Bernhardt and Wisnauskas are a handful from a physicality perspective. 

It would be rude of me not to mention the two stud middies involved here as well. Nakeie Montgomery, a First Team All-American midfielder this season, has been brilliant for the Blue Devils and ranks fourth on the team in total points. Meanwhile, Maryland’s Kyle Long also ranks fourth on his team in points. The speedster was selected as a Third Team All-American and is having a fantastic tournament so far with five points through two games.

Who Are the Guys on Defense?

Well, as usual, Maryland has an elite defense. Brett Makar and Nick Grill were both selected as Second Team All-Americans by Inside Lacrosse. Grill was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, though it’s possible that Makar actually has the higher reputation amongst both draft scouts and media. The Terps have held opponents to single-digit goals in six of their fourteen games so far this season. If there’s a weakness on this defense, it might (surprisingly) be in net. Logan McNaney has a 51% save rate on the season, an oddly low number for a Maryland goalie. More importantly, the sophomore is on a bit of a cold streak heading into this one. He’s been at just 43% through the first two rounds of the tournament and hasn’t broken 55% since an April 18 date with Ohio State. Considering the offensive firepower at hand for Duke, the Terps will need McNaney to regain his form. 

For the Blue Devils, it starts with JT Giles-Harris, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 PLL College Draft. Giles-Harris was selected as a First Team All-American yet again by IL and should be the one tasked with slowing down Jared Bernhardt. If there’s a defenseman out there with the speed/size combo to potentially hinder Bernhardt, Giles-Harris is maybe the best pick. Perhaps most importantly to Duke’s chances, though, is the play of senior goalie Mike Adler. The St. Johns transfer was named a Second Team All-American last week and has been nothing short of a godsend for this Duke team throughout conference play. He made 14 saves against High Point in the first round. He didn’t have his best game against Loyola but still stopped eight of 17 shots and, most cruciallu, got the win.

What Should I Be Watching For?

To me, there are three key battles in this game that could decide the overall results. The first we briefly discussed above, which is the battle of First Team All-Americans that’ll be happening at X. Whether or not JT Giles-Harris can slow down Jared Bernhardt seems like the biggest X-factor of the entire game. Bernhardt has been pretty much unstoppable. His worst game production-wise of the season was a three-point performance against Hopkins in the Big Ten title game. I can’t foresee a situation in which he’s shut down, but holding him to, say, even five points would do wonders for the Blue Devils’ chances of winning this one.

The second comes at the faceoff stripe. Jake Naso has been great for Duke, winning 64% of his draws this season. That’s a big advantage over Maryland, whose leading FOS is winning just 52%. Neither team is exactly dominant at faceoffs, but Naso could help make up for possessions for those that Duke will lose by playing against an elite defense. The more chances to score this Duke team gets, the better. Maryland will need to find a way to bring that back down to closer to 50/50, or it could be in for some trouble.

Finally, I want to see whose third attackman can find a way to best impact the game. Joe Robertson has been a hero in overtime for this Duke team repeatedly, but he’s also the third-leading scorer for the Blue Devils. With Makar and Grill likely guarding Sowers and O’Neill, Duke’s success could come down to Robertson’s ability to beat his man. Similarly, Daniel Maltz actually has the second-most goals for Maryland this season. If Duke focuses heavily on stopping Bernhardt and trying to force him into being a passer, can Maltz find a way to make up for those goals as a cutter and finisher?

Duke vs. Maryland Prediction

If I’m being totally honest, I have no idea who wins this game. Either team could win. They’re both unbelievably stacked. Like I said up top, this could’ve easily been the title game and nobody would’ve batted an eye. Both teams have a Tewaaraton candidate. Both teams have a top-five defenseman. I’d give Maryland the overall edge on defense and Duke just a slight advantage on offense due to overall depth. I’m not going to say that either team’s legendary coach has a true edge over the other. 

In the end, I’m taking it down to the intangibles. I’ll say that Giles-Harris manages to slow Bernhardt just enough to make things even, and then the Blue Devils rely on their other units to create the edge. It comes down to overtime, and Duke has the better faceoff guy and the better goalie. That’s just enough to get Joe Robertson the ball and let him do his thing. 

Final Score: Duke 14, Maryland 13 (OT)