By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. –– In a year marked by improbable comebacks by University of Virginia teams, most memorably on the basketball court in the NCAA tournament, another rally for the ages unfolded Saturday afternoon at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium.
After giving up five straight goals to former ACC rival Maryland, Virginia trailed 12-7 with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers didn’t flinch. This group never does.
“That’s something we’re used to, and honestly it’s something that we kind of thrive in,” senior midfielder Ryan Conrad said. “It’s a weird kind of sense of confidence that we have at the end of those games, and you can just look into each other’s eyes and everybody knows what’s about to happen.”
What happened Saturday won’t soon be forgotten by anyone who watched this NCAA quarterfinal. The Wahoos stunned the Terrapins with five unanswered goals in the final 9:23 of regulation to force overtime – the last one coming in controversial fashion at the 1:14 mark. Junior attackman Michael Kraus’ shot appeared to bounce off the crossbar, but officials ruled it a goal, and video review was not an option.
In overtime, freshman Petey LaSalla, who’s from Long Island, capped a sensational day at the faceoff-X by controlling the draw. The ball came to Kraus behind the cage, and he fed sophomore attackman Matt Moore, who fired in the goal that lifted UVA to a 13-12 victory 45 seconds into the extra period.
Moore’s game-winner gave Virginia its only lead Saturday. Cardiac Cavaliers, indeed.
“Honestly, we don’t even need to say [anything to each other on the field],” Conrad said, “but we still have guys out there saying, ‘Hey, we’ve been here before. We’ve done this a hundred times. We’ve been down by more than this, and we can do it.’ We know we can do it, and we just rely on each other. Just that trust we have in each other and the coaching staff, we know we can come back from any margin.”
And now the Cavaliers, in their third season under head coach Lars Tiffany and assistants Sean Kirwan and Kip Turner, are headed to the Final Four for the first time since 2011, when they captured the program’s fifth NCAA title.
Third-seeded UVA (15-3) will face second-seeded Duke (13-4) next Saturday in Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL’s Eagles. The Blue Devils, who defeated seventh-seeded Notre Dame in overtime in the second quarterfinal at Hofstra, have won 11 straight games over the Hoos and 19 of their past 20 meetings.
Maryland (12-5) was looking to advance to the Final Four for the eighth time in nine seasons. Until last weekend, when the Cavaliers routed Robert Morris 19-10, they hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2012.
“It’s obviously been an amazing journey,” said Conrad, who had four goals and an assist against Maryland. “My class specifically had a lot of struggles when we got here. We had a huge transition in coaching, and it definitely shook us up a little bit … but we were able to persevere through that. We lost some guys along the way, but I think we have really come together and become closer as a team.”
Tiffany said: “I’m a very grateful and thankful man to coach a group that’s committed to being the best they can be in every phase, and they were going to give us all 60-plus minutes.”
That’s become the trademark of this Virginia team. During a three-game stretch early in the season, the Hoos trailed by two in the final minute of the third quarter at Princeton, by four with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter at Syracuse, and by four with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter against Brown. UVA won each of those games in overtime.
“We’re down by four, and then it gets to three, and we’re like, ‘All right, we can definitely do this,’ ” said Moore, who with his game-winner became the first player in UVA history to total 40 goals and 40 assists in one season. “We kind of look back on what we’ve done, and I think that gives us the confidence to go out there.”
Conrad started the comeback Saturday, scoring off a pass from Moore to make it 12-8 with 9:23 left in the fourth quarter. Another goal by Conrad, this one unassisted, cut the Terrapins’ lead to 12-9 at the 3:25 mark.
Twenty seconds later, after yet another faceoff win by LaSalla, Kraus passed to sophomore attackman Ian Laviano for a goal that made it 12-10.
On the play, Maryland’s Roman Puglise was called for unnecessary roughness, a one-minute penalty, and the momentum swing was palpable. “I went, ‘This is happening. This is happening,’ ” Tiffany told reporters at his postgame press conference.
For the game, LaSalla won 16 of 24 faceoffs, including 7 of 8 in the fourth quarter (and then the only draw in OT.)
“What a heroic effort for a first-year,” Tiffany said, “for him to do that against a team that is notoriously very good at the faceoff-X. He just kept giving us those possessions so we could make that comeback win happen.”
After Laviano’s goal, the Hoos controlled the next faceoff, with junior defenseman Jared Conners scooping up the ground ball. Senior Mikey Herring then passed to Conrad for a goal that made it 12-11 with 2:41 left in the fourth quarter.
With the Terps clearly rattled, the Hoos applied more pressure. After LaSalla won another faceoff, the teams traded turnovers. This time Virginia didn’t squander its possession. All-America midfielder Dox Aitken, who came into game with only six assists on the season, passed to Kraus for a goal that sparked immediate controversy.
“It happened so fast,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said at his postgame press conference. “You see the ball released, it happens and all the sudden the ball pops out. I didn’t have as good a vantage point as the guys on the field. You’re just kind of trusting that it went in. I did ask, ‘Listen, are we 100-percent sure that was in?’ and [the officials] said, ‘Listen, if we weren’t convinced, we wouldn’t make that call.’ ”
The ACC champion Cavaliers came in averaging 14.3 goals per game, but Maryland kept their offense in check for most of the game. The Terps “took away some of our strengths and frustrated us, and we just couldn’t get unleashed until that fourth quarter,” Tiffany said.
“A lot of credit to Coach Kirwan. Sean Kirwan’s a fantastic offensive coach, and for three quarters we weren’t getting great looks at the goal. Again, give Maryland’s defense a lot of credit for that. But Sean made some adjustments, and then all of the sudden it just unleashed, and the dam was broken, and these men made plays.”
Kraus finished with a game-high four assists. He scored only one goal, as did Aitken, who like Kraus is an All-ACC selection. But Laviano finished with three goals and Moore added two as the Cavaliers again showed off their balance.
“Obviously we lean on Dox and Michael a tremendous amount,” Tiffany said, but he noted that in Virginia’s first-round win Conrad scored five goals and Herring six, a career high for each player.
“If you’re going to make a run late in May in lacrosse, you’ve got to have other people step up and you’ve got to have that depth, and we’re really fortunate,” Tiffany said.
UVA’s current players and coaches are keenly aware of the program’s storied history, Tiffany said, and they “stand on the shoulders of giants … Others have come before us and been heroic and made great wins and championships happen.”
In men’s basketball, of course, Virginia won its first NCAA title last month, capping a remarkable postseason run that included comeback wins over Purdue, Auburn and, in the championship game, Texas Tech.
“Just to be talked about in the same sentence with Tony Bennett and what his program does probably isn’t fair, because we’ve got a lot more [work to do],” Tiffany said, “but we’re honored that you could even mention us with the men’s basketball team.”