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April 1, 2017

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RICHMOND — In one goal stood the University of Richmond’s Benny Pugh, a 6-4, 215-pound senior who entered the game with a mind-boggling save percentage of 70.2.

In the other was the University of Virginia’s Griffin Thompson, a 5-10, 175-pound freshman whose save percentage coming in was 40.9.

Pugh, a Woodberry Forest graduate, was predictably brilliant Saturday afternoon, making 16 saves behind an exceptional defense and becoming the first goalie to hold the Cavaliers (6-4) to fewer than 10 goals this season.

But Thompson turned in a gem as well. In only the third start of his career, he made 12 saves to help No. 16 UVA edge No. 12 Richmond 8-7 before a crowd of 5,130 at Robins Stadium.

“Griffin knew he had to step up today against arguably the best goalie in the nation,” Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany said. “You almost never see 70 percent. That’s like [hitting] .400 in baseball.”

In the first half of his first start, March 18 against then-No. 3 Notre Dame at Klöckner Stadium, Thompson struggled. But he’s shown steady improvement since then, Tiffany said, and “we’re starting to see a leader emerge in the cage.”

Virginia lost 11-10 to Notre Dame in overtime. A week later, UVA dropped another overtime game, this one to then-No. 18 Johns Hopkins, 18-17 in Baltimore.

“When you get in these one-goal games, you just never know what’s going to happen, but no matter what Griffin’s come to work every day and he’s done a great job,” said UVA assistant coach Kip Turner, who works with the goalies.

“He’s one of those kids that always wants to get to work. If something doesn’t go his way, he wants to fix it.”

Thirty-two seconds into the game, freshman defenseman Jared Conners put UVA up 1-0 with the first goal of his college career. He scored the game’s final goal, too, firing a shot past Pugh in transition with 57 seconds left to break a 7-7 tie.

Not since his junior year at Pittsford High School in New York had Conners scored two goals in a game. That was with a long stick, too.

“We’ve challenged Jared recently, because he hasn’t played well,” Tiffany said, “and I’ve liked how he responded, not only in this game but in the Johns Hopkins game.”

With 90 seconds left, Richmond (8-2) appeared on the verge of its first-ever win over Virginia. But when a penalty put the Spiders a man down, UVA junior attackman Mike D’Amario passed to freshman midfielder Dox Aitken, whose rocket beat Pugh to make it 7-7 with 1:11 to play.

On the ensuing faceoff, Virginia sophomore middie Ryan Conrad emerged from a crowd with the ball and passed ahead to Conners. As the 6-5, 210-pound freshman raced down the field, Tiffany acknowledged later, the Cavaliers’ coaches would not have objected had Conners passed the ball.

“We joke, `Hey, get the ball to the professionals,’ ” Tiffany said. “The guys who stand near the goal are the ones we want shooting the ball.”

Until Saturday, a UVA defenseman had not scored a goal this season. But Conners again shot with purpose against a goalie who had held the Wahoos scoreless in the second and third quarters.

Pugh “made a bunch of incredible saves,” said Aitken, who led Virginia with three goals. “We were hoping that one would slip by him, and that’s what happened.”

At the other end, Conners then forced a turnover, checking the ball out of UR middie Adrian Nash’s stick. Virginia senior middie Will McNamara scooped up the ground ball and the Cavaliers ran out the clock to secure a significant victory.

“In the past, being the best team in the Commonwealth was sort of a foregone conclusion,” said Tiffany, who’s in his first season at UVA. “Now, as you can see, it’s a one-goal battle.”

The `Hoos came to Richmond with a 2-4 record in one-goal games. Tiffany didn’t discuss the postseason implications with his players, but a loss Saturday would have dealt a major blow to the Cavaliers’ hopes of making the NCAAs.

“Certainly, we know the NCAA tournament committee doesn’t care how much you lose by or win by,” Tiffany said. “The pollsters take that into [account], but at the end of the day, the NCAA tournament committee doesn’t care. Lose by 20 or lose by 1, you lost, so we needed to get some Ws. Maybe we can start a streak here in April.”

Four regular-season games remain for Virginia, starting Tuesday night against Cleveland State (3-7) at Klöckner Stadium. Two more home games will follow — April 9 against North Carolina and April 11 against Robert Morris — before UVA closes the regular season April 15 at Duke.

Nobody will be surprised if the Cavaliers find themselves in more close games. Such situations are stressful, Conners said, but he and his teammates are confident they can win that way if necessary.

“I think we’re so used to the feeling now,” Aitken said. “I guess when you’re in it for the first or second time, you kind of tend to rush or make an impulsive play. But we’ve been in it so much — unfortunately or fortunately — that I think we’re able to kind of calm the nerves a little bit.”

It helps, of course, when Virginia’s goalie plays as well as Thompson did Saturday.

“He’s a gamer,” Aitken said. “He plays really well in practice, but when you put him in those game-type situations, it seems like it doesn’t faze him at all, which is awesome for a freshman goalie.”

Thompson, who’s from Princeton, N.J., was well aware of Pugh’s exploits this season.

“I knew it was going to be a battle,” Thompson said. “Personally I love playing against goalies that have a really high save percentage and high ranking, because for me that’s good competition, and I love to play and show the other team that I’m good, too.”

Turner, the starting goalie on the UVA team that won the NCAA title in 2006, admitted that early in the fall he would not have predicted Thompson would be starting in April.

“But it just goes to show his progression as a person and as a goalie,” Turner said.

Thompson said: “I put a lot of pressure on myself early, and I think the mentality I have now is to just go out there and have fun.

“I was a little slow to see the ball in the beginning, but now I’m starting to see it, I’m starting to feel comfortable, I’m starting to feel good. I know there’s more in store for me, and I definitely think I can keep getting better and keep improving.”

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