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Lacrosse, 3

Duke vs. Virginia, May 29

[Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun]

Two weeks ago, I wrote a pair of posts (here and here) about the NCAA men’s lacrosse championships. Time for a quick update, with the final game three hours away.

The short version: Lacrosse history will be made today. As I wrote in the previous posts, seven schools have dominated college lacrosse over the decades: Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Virginia, North Carolina, Cornell, and Maryland. Each has won at least two championships (with Syracuse winning 10, Hopkins 9), each has appeared in at least five championship games (Hopkins 18, Syracuse 16), and no other school has won a championship or appeared in more than two championship games. But today an eighth team will be added to the list of champions, either Duke or Notre Dame.

Duke would be an overdue addition to the list. They made the 2005 and 2007 finals, losing each time by just a goal to Hopkins. They made the 2008 and 2009 semi-finals, losing to Hopkins and then Syracuse. They were every bit as good in 2006, but that was the year that their season ended early amidst the arrest of three of its players. Notre Dame hasn’t had Duke’s success, but they’ve been among the top teams for the last decade, making a semi-final in 2001 and going undefeated last year in regular season play, entering the tournament as the #2 seed (before being upset at home in the first round by Maryland). This year, they beat Duke to open the season and were ranked as high as #3, but went into a mid-season swoon, thanks in part to an injury to their star goalie, and were perhaps lucky to be one of the 16 teams invited to participate in the tournament.

Longer version: I left off two weeks ago after the opening round of the tournament, the round of 16. Let me review what has happened since. As you’ll recall, the round of 16 is organized around eight seeded teams hosting eight unseeded teams. The eight seeds were six of the historic super seven schools (all but Hopkins), along with Duke and Stony Brook. Two seeded teams lost, Princeton to Notre Dame and Syracuse to Army. The Syracuse-Army game was one of the greatest upsets in lacrosse history. Syracuse, the two-time defending champion, had the #2 seed and had lost only to #1 seed Virginia, at the beginning of the season. Army beat them in double overtime.

This set up the four quarter-final match-ups last weekend: #3 seed Maryland against Notre Dame and #4 seed UNC against #5 seed Duke at Princeton on Saturday; #7 seed Cornell against Army and #1 seed Virginia against #8 Stony Brook at Stony Brook on Sunday. All games were televised on ESPNU, which we don’t get, so I was reduced to following them on-line. The NCAA website has a “gametracker” feature. You click on it and get to watch several items get updated every few minutes: the time of the game, the score, a description of the last few possessions (team A clears, Team B shoots, Team A gets a ground ball — that level of detail), a list of the goals and scorers and times of goals. It’s better than nothing. That’s how I followed the games, off and on.

At Princeton on Saturday, Notre Dame avenged last year’s opening round loss to Maryland with a 7-5 victory and Duke easily beat UNC, 17-9. Sunday’s opening game was another rout, Cornell 14-5 over Army. Then came an unexpectedly close match between Virginia and Stony Brook. Virginia was the superior team, but Stony Brook (by the luck of the selection of quarter-final “neutral” sites) had the home field. Plus, there was the continuing emotional toll on the Virginia players of the murder earlier this month of one of UVA’s women’s lacrosse players (a crime for which one of their teammates was arrested and charged). Virginia took a 5-1 lead, but Stony Brook came back to tie it, as they did again after Virginia took a 7-5 lead and an 8-7 lead. Virginia opened up a 10-8 lead with 3:45 left in the game, but Stony Brook closed the gap to 10-9 with 2:11 left. They could do no more. That’s how the game ended.

The semi-finals were played two days ago in Baltimore, at the Baltimore Ravens football stadium. #7 Cornell faced off against Notre Dame to start the day, with the Virginia-Duke game to follow. Cornell came within seconds of winning the championship last year, with Syracuse tying in the closing seconds and winning in overtime. This year’s Cornell team did not come close. They attacked early, scored a goal in the second minute, but then Notre Dame’s goalie (Scott Rodgers) made several saves, Notre Dame got four straight goals, and their defense didn’t let Cornell get close again. The final score was 12-7.

Then came a classic game. Let me remind you that in my second lacrosse post, following first-round play, I wrote, “Duke looked awfully good against Hopkins. With Syracuse’s departure, the two best teams in the tournament may be Virginia and Duke. Be sure to watch them on Memorial weekend if they do meet in the semi-finals.” I was right. What a game! Here’s a summary of sorts.

Virginia scored first and took a 4-2 lead at the end of the first quarter. Duke scored quickly in the second quarter to cut the lead to 4-3, Virginia regained their two-goal margin a few minutes later, and then Duke got two goals to tie the game at 5-5 with 5:45 left in the half. Virginia responded with two goals, including a shocker with 12 seconds left, to take a 7-5 halftime lead. A goal in the second minute of the third quarter upped Virginia’s lead to 8-5.

At this point, the potent Duke offense exploded with seven straight goals, as Duke took a 12-8 lead three minutes into the fourth quarter. Virginia got back into the game with three straight goals of their own that made the score 12-11, but with 4:27 left, Duke scored again to go ahead 13-11. They appeared headed to the final. And then, bang-bang, Virginia scored with 1:50 and 1:21 left to tie the game at 13. Duke won the ensuing faceoff, waited for a final shot, and scored with 12 seconds left. They won the faceoff that followed, all but ending the game, but no, they turned the ball over! Virginia had a chance, with 8 seconds left. They called a time out to set up the final play. Star midfielder Brian Carroll took the ball and ran over the midfield line toward the Duke goal. But the whistle blew. Virginia was offsides! Duke took possession with 4 seconds left and ran out the clock. Game over.

I thought going in that this should have been the championship game, that whoever wins should go on to win the final. I still favor Duke over Notre Dame, but with three straight wins over seeded teams (Princeton, Maryland, Cornell), Notre Dame has shown that their strong defense lets them compete against anyone. Plus, of course, Notre Dame already beat Duke this season, 11-7 at Durham to open the season. But that was back in February. My pick: Duke. Either way, we will welcome an eighth team to the list of champions, the first new entry since Princeton’s win in 1992.

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