By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PHILADELPHIA –– After all the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team has done this season, and how the Cavaliers have done it, the ending that played out Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field should have surprised no one.
That didn’t make it any less dramatic.
UVA entered the NCAA tournament’s championship weekend having lost 11 straight games to ACC rival Duke – by an average margin of 5.2 goals — and 19 of 20 in the series.
“It felt like a hundred,” said Lars Tiffany, who’s in his third season as Virginia’s head coach.
Somehow, though, the ACC champion Cavaliers managed to block out all that history. That was critical, Tiffany said, “because if you start diving into that, then there’s probably too much weight on your shoulders emotionally.”
The weight has been lifted. The third-seeded Wahoos floated off the field Saturday after rallying to defeat the second-seeded Blue Devils 13-12 in double overtime before 32,612 at the home of the NFL’s Eagles.
“We don’t really pay that much attention [to the series history],” sophomore attackman Matt Moore said, “but we knew they had our number the past … too many years.”
With that devil exorcised, Virginia will try Monday to win the sixth NCAA title in program history. The Cavaliers were crowned in 1972, 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011.
At 1 p.m., UVA (16-3) meets fifth-seeded Yale (15-3), the defending NCAA champion. In the second semifinal Saturday, Yale stunned top-seeded Penn State with 10 first-quarter goals and went on to win 21-17.
The Hoos opened this NCAA tournament with a 19-10 victory over Robert Morris at Klöckner Stadium, but little has come easily for them since. In last weekend’s NCAA quarterfinals in Hempstead, N.Y., Virginia edged Maryland 13-12 in overtime, but only after a monumental comeback.
Against the Terrapins, the Cavaliers trailed by five goals in the fourth quarter. Against Duke, they trailed by three with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and by two with a minute left in regulation.
Again, the Hoos refused to succumb.
“They’ve been doing this to people all year,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “They don’t give up. They play with great skill and great confidence and poise to the end, and they beat us. They clearly beat us.”
With 46 seconds left in the fourth quarter, junior attackman Michael Kraus’ goal, off a pass from senior midfielder Mikey Herring, cut Duke’s lead to 12-11. Freshman Petey LaSalla won the faceoff that followed – nothing new there – and Virginia’s offense went back to work.
From behind the cage, Moore passed to sophomore attackman Ian Laviano, who fired a shot past Duke goalie Turner Uppgren to make it 12-12 with 14.4 seconds remaining in regulation – the first tie in this game since 2-2.
LaSalla opened the first overtime with his seventh straight faceoff win, but the Cavaliers couldn’t capitalize, and they needed two saves from sophomore goalie Alex Rode to force a second extra period.
This one started in familiar fashion, as LaSalla won his eighth consecutive draw, and this time Duke never got the ball back. Fifty-one seconds into the four-minute period, Laviano struck again, taking a feed from Moore and beating Uppgren with a quick sidearmed shot from in front of the cage.
“We have some chemistry,” said Moore, who finished with two goals and two assists. “Ian just does a good job of finding space. I came around, drew a slide and kind of surveyed the defense, and he was wide open up top, and I know he’s going to hit that shot.”
The goal was the 50th of the season for Laviano, who said muscle memory took over when he caught Moore’s pass.
“I’m not thinking,” Laviano said. “That’s something that me and Matt have connected on before. Incredible look by Matt, and I just had to do the easiest part and put it in the back of the net.”
Laviano finished with a game-high four goals. Junior midfielder Dox Aitken, who like Moore grew up in the Philly area and has cheered on the Eagles many times at Lincoln Financial Field, had three goals and an assist.
Kraus, who missed Virginia’s regular-season loss to Duke with an ankle injury, contributed one goal and a game-high four assists Saturday, and Rode tied his career high with 19 saves.
“I’m really, really fortunate to coach men who will buy in, do whatever is asked of them, and commit to being the best team player they can be,” Tiffany said.
For the Hoos, this was their fifth overtime game of the season. Their record in those games: 5-0. In each one Virginia trailed in the fourth quarter.
“I wish we could make it easier on ourselves and play well all four quarters, but the tenacity and the grit of this team is unparalleled, and I’m so happy I get another two days with this team,” said Conrad, a first-team All-American who scooped up the ground ball on the faceoff that started the second OT.
At halftime, Duke led 5-2, and Virginia had 13 turnovers. Not since 2011 had the Hoos played in the Final Four, and nerves might have affected their play.
“What was going on in the first half? Did we get caught up in the moment?” Tiffany said.
Until this season, none of his players had even won an NCAA tournament game, let alone a semifinal.
“Maybe we saw that early: a lot of turnovers, unforced turnovers and tentativeness,” Tiffany said. “And I was probably more animated at halftime than normal with this team and this team responded. I said, ‘Fellas, this is our moment. We’ve earned this moment. We don’t deserve this. We’ve earned this. Take the moment.’ “
The Cavaliers played better in the third quarter but gave up the first two goals of the fourth, and suddenly they were looking at a three-goal defict. But then LaSalla, one of the heroes of Virginia’s quarterfinal win over Maryland, began to impose his will at the faceoff-X.
In the third quarter, Duke’s Bryan Smyth won six of nine draws, after which UVA assistant Kip Turner “drew up a new scheme for our wings, so it opened up more room for me to exit out the back,” LaSalla said.
For the game, LaSalla won 18 of 30 faceoffs against Smyth.
“He’s stood on his head the entire season, and he is a huge, huge part as to why we are able to come back in these games,” Conrad said. “This is actually the first time that we have played defense in overtime. Every other game he has won the faceoff, and we’ve gone down and scored. And I think that’s credit to our defense stepping up in OT. Petey has been huge the entire year, and this game is just another one of those days.”
After Laviano’s game-winner, he and his teammates sprinted across the field and celebrated with the thousands of orange-clad fans in UVA’s cheering section.
“They were great,” said Aitken, whose 42 goals are the most ever by a Virginia middie in one season. “They filled our entire section plus some, and they were with us the whole game, and when we were down and it looked like we might have been out, they kind of brought some life back into us.
“When Ian put it in, we all started running, and I just heard them –– they were so loud –– and I was just drawn to them and wanted to get ’em a little louder. I want more for the next game, and it’s going to be awesome.”
Another raucuous celebration followed in Virginia’s locker room. As much as the Cavaliers try to approach every game in the same way, they knew the significance of this victory.
“They’ve had our number since we’ve all been here,” Aitken said, “and we knew that that was a quote-unquote ‘monkey on our back’ for a while.”
Moore said: “It’s awesome. It makes it better that we beat Duke, definitely.”