Cornell has dominated this series, winning six of nine meetings – including three of the last four. But Duke has had the upper hand in the NCAA tournament, winning both contests against the Big Red.
Cornell (14-3) has scored 32 goals in two tournament games – most among the four semifinalists. While much of the focus will center on an offense guided by two-time Tewaaraton Award finalist Rob Pannell (42 goals and 53 assists), the defense ranks second in Division I in caused turnovers per game (10.1), and senior defenseman Jason Noble and senior long-stick midfielder Thomas Keith have caused more than 30 turnovers each.
The seventh-seeded Blue Devils (14-5) have scored back-to-back 12-11 decisions against Loyola in the first round and second-seeded Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. The country’s third-most prolific offense also ranks ninth in shooting percentage (32.2) with five players each converting more than 30 percent of their shots.
Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Saturday.
1) The goalkeepers. Cornell senior A.J. Fiore has played well in the postseason, but his season-long numbers (8.49 goals-against average and .529 save percentage) are only somewhat decent. Still, coach Ben DeLuca said is leaning on Fiore to anchor the defense. “He’s the field general in between the pipes for us,” DeLuca said. “His communication is key, his ability to recognize an offense and get our defense on the same page. And I think our guys feed off of him emotionally as well. He’s a guy that plays with emotion. He cares about what we’re doing.” Duke sophomore Kyle Turri’s statistics (9.28, .487) are worse than Fiore’s, but he does have coach John Danowski’s confidence. “He’s been in a lot of big games … and he’s 12-1 this year,” Danowski said. “He can pick off passes, he can get ground balls out of the cage, outlets the ball really well. He’s a winner.”
2) Duke’s Brendan Fowler. The Big Red have a very capable faceoff specialist in junior Doug Tesoriero (59.2 percent on 226-of-382 and 122 ground balls), but he will run into his toughest assignment against Fowler. The junior ranks third in the country in faceoff percentage (64.9 percent on 303-of-467), and his average of 9.6 ground balls ranks second. How Tesoriero tries to counter Fowler’s strategies could determine which team wins the time-of-possession battle. “For Cornell, it’s [about] managing the faceoffs,” ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon said. “I know that with the new rules, the faceoffs aren’t what they used to be in terms of getting the ball down low and milking the clock. But Cornell needs their offense to play and get touches.”
3) Cornell’s Rob Pannell. Neither sixth-seeded Maryland nor third-seeded Ohio State figured out a way to contain the fifth-year senior attackman, who has racked up six goals and nine assists in the NCAA tournament. The question is, do you defend the Tewaaraton Award favorite as a scorer or a feeder? Dixon thinks a zone defense might be Duke’s best option, but Pannell’s teammates are just as potent. “[F]or Duke, you’ve got to be able to defend Rob Pannell so that he doesn’t go off,” Dixon said. “It’s OK if he has six points and nobody does anything else, but you can’t look up and see that Pannell has six points and [senior attackman Steve] Mock has seven and [sophomore midfielder Connor] Buczek has four. You can’t have that.”