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Brennan O'Neill

Brennan O'Neill Dazzles with 9 Points as Duke Takes Down Virginia

March 31, 2023
Patrick Stevens
Duke Athletics

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A big, physical defense that improved as the day unfolded. A star attackman putting on a show with his strong shooting and slick passing. A transition game that repeatedly provided answers.

All of it is usually part of Virginia’s formula for winning. Friday night, Duke did it all better than the Cavaliers.

The Blue Devils never trailed in a 16-14 victory before 3,849 at soggy Klöckner Stadium in the first of at least two meetings between conference rivals, as Brennan O’Neill scored six goals and added three assists and a Kenny Brower-led defense shut down Cavaliers star Connor Shellenberger.

Toss out some turnovers in a slapdash first quarter as both teams adjusted to the suboptimal conditions, and it was clear Duke (10-1, 3-0 ACC) was also the crisper team at both ends of the field.

“I don’t know if we’ve learned it from the Navy SEALs, but we steal it from them: You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back on your fundamentals,” Duke coach John Danowski said. “When the weather is sloppy or the opponent is terrific and very talented, you have to rely on your foundation. I thought today we did that a lot.”

It was also the latest chapter in what has become a bizarrely lopsided series over almost two decades. Duke has won 24 of the last 26 meetings and has not lost a regular-season game to the Cavaliers since 2004. Virginia’s lone triumphs over the Blue Devils in that span were in the 2010 ACC tournament at Maryland and the 2019 NCAA semifinals in Philadelphia.

Payton Cormier scored six goals — tied for the most ever by a Virginia player against Duke — for the Cavaliers (7-2, 1-1), who closed within a goal three times in the second half but never knotted the score.

“I felt like we were right there with them the entire game,” Virginia goalie Matthew Nunes (14 saves) said. “Whether we are down by one, tied, down by two or three, we always know we can play with any team in the country and can come back from any deficit. We always stay neutral. We just couldn’t make that one play to put us over the top today.”

Brower and a Duke defense that was allowing 9.8 goals per game entering the day warranted much of that credit. The Blue Devils wobbled a bit against Virginia’s potent attack in the back half of the second quarter but recovered to allow just one even-strength goal in the final 21:59.

Most impressive was how effectively Brower stymied Shellenberger, who took only one shot. Shellenberger finished with a pair of assists on extra-man, both in a 29-second span while Brower was serving a non-releasable penalty.

“They really said, ‘We are going to force you to do something you’re not comfortable [with],” Virginia coach Lars Tiffany said. “We’re going to take away your offense behind the goal. We’re going to take away Shellenberger,’ and Brower did a fantastic job on him.”

Yet it wasn’t just the stops and goalie William Helm’s 14 saves that boosted Duke’s chances. As much as Virginia likes to infuse a helter-skelter element into games, Duke demonstrated it was more than capable of doing the same when given an opportunity.

O’Neill and Jake Caputo both assisted on Dyson Williams transition goals in the second quarter, and long pole Will Frisoli scored against the Cavaliers’ 10-man ride to make it 14-11 late in the third.

“We worked on it the whole week,” Brower said. “They’re a great team at getting up and down. We know that’s their game. We just knew we had to bring it in that area of the game.”

O’Neill was a remarkable combination of dazzling and efficient while matching his career high with nine points — and did so with Virginia defenseman Cade Saustad marking him. Two exceptional plays stood out: Coolly evading a Saustad check before stepping down and firing a dart past Nunes, and then a pinpoint pass to Williams that made it 15-11 with 11 seconds left in the third.

“That one where we played zone at the end of the third quarter and he got it to Dyson, that was ridiculous with three seconds left on the shot clock,” Tiffany said. “He’s a very special player.”

The teams’ first encounter — they’ll play again April 15 at Duke — carried a different perspective for both programs. Virginia wrapped up a 14-day stretch that saw it lose in overtime to Maryland, go on the road and deal Notre Dame its first loss and then come back to Klöckner to absorb yet another loss from a generation-long nemesis.

Tiffany remained upbeat afterward, noting that so many games over the years against the Blue Devils have gone seriously sideways and that this one didn’t, even when Duke threatened to pull away when it led 7-2 and 16-11.

Virginia was never completely out of it — it had the ball for much of the final two minutes but could only muster one shot — and Tiffany walked away from his team’s three high-end games believing the Cavaliers have one of the best faceoff men in the country in Petey LaSalla and that Nunes is finding a rhythm.

“I know I have a group of men that embraces our motto, ‘Race to improve,’” Tiffany said. “We’ve learned a lot through these three games.”

As for Duke, it capped a 6-0 March and has won eight in a row since a one-goal loss at Jacksonville on February 11. The Blue Devils are well-positioned to return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus and have only four games remaining before the postseason.

It was the start of a three-week stretch against this season’s apparent heavyweights; Duke visits Notre Dame on April 8 before the return game against Virginia in Durham.

“Coming off that Jacksonville game and coming off last year, too, I think we’re just a little more hungry and we just have to keep that hunger and keep getting better every week,” Brower said.