- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

BALTIMORE — The first thing Duke coach John Danowski did upon entering his team’s locker room was to scribble the date and opponent for the Blue Devils’ trip to the national title game followed by the words “THE NEXT GAME.”

Thing is, Duke barely avoided playing its last game yesterday.

Attackman Zack Greer scored his fourth goal with three seconds remaining, sending the top-seeded Blue Devils past No. 4 Cornell 12-11 and into tomorrow’s final against Johns Hopkins before a final four record crowd of 52,004 at M&T; Bank Stadium.

The goal stymied a comeback by the Big Red (15-1), who erased a 10-3 deficit, and ensured the once-embattled Blue Devils a chance to play for a championship just a year after rape accusations against three players prompted the school to cancel the second half of the team’s season.

“We’ve been in every situation,” senior attackman Matt Danowski said. “We’ve been up by a goal and lost, we’ve won in overtime, we’ve done almost everything. We came back last weekend and won [against North Carolina]. We know we just have to stay calm and stick with it and we’ll get through it.”

Calm doesn’t describe yesterday’s frenetic final two minutes. Cornell called timeout with 1:22 left, then tried twice to approach the cage only for Duke pole Nick O’Hara to force a turnover both times. Yet the Blue Devils (17-2) bungled their clearing attempts, leaving the Big Red an opportunity.

They capitalized with 17 seconds left when Brian Clayton zinged a shot past Duke goalie Dan Loftus (16 saves), who battled dehydration on the steamy day and struggled to pick up the ball during Cornell’s 8-1 run after producing a superb first half.

“I was really thinking about overtime,” Loftus said.

It was needless worry. Freshman Terrence Molinari won the faceoff and got the ball to midfielder Peter Lamade, who found Greer about five yards from the crease.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Canadian posted up a short stick glued to him much of the day, then unleashed a shot wide of goalie Matt McMonagle’s chest for the game-winner.

“I just had to play my instincts,” Greer said. “We didn’t have much time on and Peter was still up by the midfield. He was doing his best to get in front of me and I had to get my stick open and it was an unbelievable pass right on my stick and all I had to do was turn and throw it in.”

For much of the afternoon, it seemed such heroics would be unnecessary. Duke received goals from long poles O’Hara and Parker McKee just before halftime, and built a redoubtable seven-goal lead even as Danowski (one goal, two assists) was contained by Cornell defenseman Mitch Belisle.

The Big Red responded exceptionally. With a near-monopoly on possession for much of the final 18 minutes, Cornell peeled away a deficit few could have managed as Duke appeared to tighten up.

“It sounded like last week: ‘Relax, take it one play at a time, let’s just win the next play,’ ” John Danowski said. “Coming out of halftime, let’s play 10 three-minute games and let’s win each three-minute segment. That was working OK for a while until they won a bunch of three-minute segments.”

But oh-so-barely, Cornell didn’t win enough. And that — coupled with a previously unblemished record — might have made the final outcome even more difficult to handle.

“That one hurt a great deal,” Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni said.

While the Big Red was denied a next game, Duke still sees the target it remained dialed into all season. The Blue Devils dispensed with national title talk from the start of practice, instead striving toward the next day, next practice, next game.

Now, the two philosophies — remaining in the present and playing for a championship — will collide for a team that spent so much of the season in the spotlight.

“We thought this might be possible with this group, just because of their work ethic and their talent and their experience,” John Danowski said. “We never said it and you didn’t play for that. All the sudden, here we are and now we are.”

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