OXBOROUGH, MASS. - — FOXBOROUGH, MASS. - The next time Duke gets an opportunity to play in the NCAA Division I men's Final Four lacrosse tournament, maybe it should borrow former first lady Nancy Reagan's line, and "just say no."
Enough is enough.
For the third straight year, Duke came into the final four as one of the hottest teams in the country, and for the second straight year the Blue Devils were eliminated in the semifinals, this time losing to Syracuse, 17-7, Saturday at Gillette Stadium.
The first two losses were bad for morale because Duke had the two best offensive players on the planet in attackmen Matt Danowski and Zack Greer. Saturday, the Blue Devils were in the game only until midway in the second quarter when they disappeared. When Syracuse attackman Stephen Keogh scored with 2 minutes, 29 seconds left in the third quarter from the top of the crease with several defensemen watching to put the Orange ahead 12-6, it was apparent the game was over.
The Blue Devils could have charged admission for those seats for the remainder of the game.
"We always come in here the same way," Duke junior attackman Max Quinzani said. "We come here very confident. Syracuse punched us in the mouth early, give them credit for that. I thought going into the first quarter, we would have composure. They didn't allow us to have long possessions, and then we started running around like chickens with our heads cut off."
After Saturday's loss, you have to wonder whether Duke will ever get back here. It won't be because of lack of talent. We're talking about the psychological scars left from the three losses. You would figure Duke would at least be respectable this season because the Blue Devils wanted to prove that they could win without their big guns.
In fact, Duke had won nine straight games before Saturday, including two wins against No. 1 seed Virginia, the only team to have beaten the Cavaliers. The Blue Devils were getting balanced scoring from Quinzani, fellow attackman Ned Crotty and midfielders Brad Ross and Justin Turri. Defensemen Parker McKee, Michael Manley and Ryan McFadyen were shutting down the opposition and creating turnovers that were being turned into fast-break goals.
And then came Saturday.
McKee, Manley and McFadyen were late sliding most of the game, and McFadyen spent a lot of time cheap-shotting Syracuse players. The Orange won 18 of 28 faceoffs and outshot Duke 48-32. The Blue Devils failed to convert on several fast-break opportunities in the first half, and Duke seemed surprised by Syracuse's speed.
If Syracuse midfielder Dan Hardy and attackman Kenny Nimms had played their usually strong games early, this game would have been a bigger blowout. This was the worst playoff loss suffered by a Duke team in the previous 29 postseason games.
Is coach John Danowski, a players' type coach, too laid-back in the postseason? Are his players too tired late in the postseason? Maybe Duke's program just isn't in the class of a Syracuse or Johns Hopkins?
"Early on, we didn't have many possessions and violated a bunch of faceoffs, so we didn't really have the ball on offense a lot," John Danowski said. "It's been a long time since we've been behind in a game, so I think we began pressing a little bit. We tried to force the ball and make plays."
Maybe, but we've seen this Duke act before. Last season, the Blue Devils came into the tournament as the No. 1 seed with only one loss. They had all the motivation in the world after losing to Hopkins in the national title game in 2007, and then with basically the same roster intact, they were eliminated by Hopkins, 10-9, in the semifinals.
It's not all the Blue Devils' fault. Syracuse played well Saturday, and the Orange defense took apart Duke's attack. But that seems to happen every year in the final four, only Saturday was embarrassing.
At one point, you were hoping the referees didn't enforce the stalling rule because you felt sorry for Duke. You thought of the money the Blue Devils might have saved on their travel budget if they had just stayed at home.
Sometimes, it's good just to say no, we're not coming. The Blue Devils haven't arrived in the past three years.