Denver was as in control of a game against Syracuse as any team could be: Leading 5-2 at the half, the Pioneers' were cracking the Orange's defense -- Denver scored on about 30 percent of the first half offensive oppportunities, were shooting 50.00 percent, had survived 30 minutes in which the they committed nine turnovers (six were unforced) on 17 offensive opportunities, and were controlling the pace of play with a plus-four possession margin in their favor -- and standing strong against Syracuse's prism of an offense -- Ryan LaPlante finished the half with an 86.67 save percentage, the Orange were shooting only 8.70 percent, and Syracuse -- a model of offensive efficiency -- scored on only about 15 percent of their 13 offensive opportunities. Everything was coming together for the Pioneers: The defense was coalescing around LaPlante and Denver's offense -- while a little less efficient than Denver would like (primarily due to the team's turnover rate) -- was getting the volume of possessions it need to attack the Orange's defense and insulate the team's defense from overexposure.
Syracuse, the 11-time national champion, was in a tough spot; Denver, under the watchful and knowing eye of Bill Tierney (a six-time national champion), looked like the favorite to advance to Memorial Monday. With 30 minutes remaining in regulation, two thoughts seemed dominate the potential outcome of the game: (1) Whether The Syracuse MagicTM would appear, decades worth of lacrosse equity that had seemingly found its way into every important moment in Orange history; and (2) Whether this was a Denver team that had found its stride at the right time of the season, featuring some of the strongest offensive weapons in the country, a defense that was bringing everything together, and a brain trust on the sideline that holds few peers in Division I lacrosse.
Following Syracuse's come-from-behind 9-8 victory over the Pioneers, the answer to both questions is "Yes."
The third period played out much like the first half: The pace was in Denver's favor (there were only around 15 possessions in that quarter), the Pioneers maintained their three-goal lead (scoring the first and final goals of the period), and Syracuse continued to struggle to find twine (the Orange shot just 25 percent that quarter, although Jamie Faus -- who relieved LaPlante after the intermission (a plan that Denver has followed all but twice this season) -- was responsible for stifling Syracuse's accuracy only once). Denver wasn't in dominating control of the game and momentum was fairly stagnant despite the fact that the Pioneers stuck home a goal from Eric Law with 1:25 left in the quarter (the Law tally came on the heels of a stone-cold stuff from Faus, turning away Derek Maltz on the doorstep and creating the offensive possession for Denver), but the Pioneers were in a position to jettison the Orange to the outer reaches of space.
Then it happened, almost as if it had to happen. A Derek Maltz strike from JoJo Marasco -- Syracuse's combustion engine throughout the year and a cat that has built a reputation as a late-game connoisseur with an innate knowledge of "the prestige" -- brought the Orange within two. A Scott Loy finish from Dylan Donahue just over two minutes later brought Syracuse within 7-6 with over eight minutes remaining in regulation. Syracuse was cracking Denver's defense despite not getting the transition opportunities it often seeks; the Pioneers' offense wasn't going plaid, failing to convert on three possessions and having two of those opportunities erased with saves from Dominic Lamolinara (the third was a failed clearing opportunity that Matt Harris blew up, a caused turnover that eventually ended in Maltz's finish.) An Eric Law goal from Taylor Young with 5:17 left in the final period would grow Denver's lead to 8-6, but from that point on The Syracuse MagicTM descended upon Lincoln Financial Field.
Denver would win the ensuing faceoff -- the Pioneers went 12-21 at the dot on the day, a grinding effort from Syracuse's blue collar faceoff unit -- but Brian Megill would kill the defensive possession after stripping Sean Cannizzaro in a timer-on posture. The Orange would draw dual pushing penalties on Denver on the following offensive possession, creating a six-on-four man-up opportunity that would result in JoJo Marasco finishing a Dylan Donahue helper. Just before Marasco pulled Syracuse within one, Denver was a 52-48 favorite to win the game. That math, however, does not account for the unbelievable: A Matt Harris strip of Chase Carraro would eliminate the opportunity for Denver to burn clock; a Luke Cometti blast on a feed from JoJo Marasco in the resulting possession would knot the score at eight. The Orange were tied with Denver, the first time since 14:02 in the first quarter, and there were just 59 seconds left in regulation. The magic was happening -- the ghosts of Tim Nelson, the Gaits, the Powells, and dozens of others were pushing Syracuse toward the amazing.
The final thrust of the game was all that's necessary to believe that Syracuse lacrosse is merely a form of alchemy: Syracuse won the consequent faceoff stemming from Cometti's game-tying goal (the unexpected); successfully cleared (expected); took a timeout; saw Cometti have his potentially game-winning attempt turned away by Faus (is this the end of the Orange's magic?); saw Faus unable to control the shot, the ball ricocheting back to the middle of the field; and watched Maltz, alone and unmarked, corral the loose ball -- are you serious?! -- and fire the winning goal into the back of the net with just 20 seconds remaining in regulation. It was Syracuse's first lead of the game and the second game in a row in which the Orange have earned the game-winning tally with under 30 seconds remaining in regulation.
This happens in Division I lacrosse, but the rate at which it falls in Syracuse's favor is beyond comprehension.
Here's a truncated tempo-free box score:
|Offensive Efficiency (per 100 Offensive Opportunities)||25.00||33.33|
|Shots per Offensive Opportunity||0.75||1.48|
|Offensive Shooting Percentage||33.33%||22.50%|
|Turnovers (per 100 Offensive Opportunities)||53.13||22.22|
|Caused Turnovers (per 100 Defensive Opportunities)||11.11||21.88|
|Unforced Turnovers (per 100 Offensive Opportunities)||31.25||11.11|
|Team Save Percentage||65.38%||50.00%|
|Saves per 100 Defensive Opportunities||62.96||25.00|
|Run-of-Play Groundballs per 100 Total Possessions||18.64||25.42|
1 Much will be made of Denver's decision to stick with their plan to have LaPlante play the first half and Jamie Faus play the second half. While LaPlante was hotter than a two dollar pistol over the first thirty minutes of play, Faus isn't a scrub -- these are both number one-type of keepers -- and Syracuse's offense was bound to find a groove in the second half. The decision to trade the goaltenders wasn't the reason that Denver lost or the lone reason that the Orange suddenly got hot. It was a decision that may have impacted the outcome of the game, but it wasn't the reason that dictated the outcome.