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NCAA Lacrosse Tournament: Denver Rallies Back From Early Deficit to Drop North Carolina

Denver head coach Bill Tierney has read this script before.

Rob Carr

Bill Tierney has been in a tough spot in the NCAA Tournament before. In fact, one of the toughest situation he's ever faced in The Big Barbecue happened almost 15 years ago to the day: Trailing 8-4 in the national quarterfinals against Duke, Tierney pulled goaltender Corey Popham -- the keeper had allowed eight goals on 10 shots over the game's first 28 minutes -- and inserted Trevor Tierney, just a freshman, to try and settle Princeton's defensive efforts. The change worked: Princeton would assert control of the game, going on a 7-1 run after the switch in the crease, eventually earning an 11-9 victory and a trip to the national semifinals at Rutgers (a run that would end with a 15-5 victory over Maryland in the national championship). As The New York Times reported:

The Tigers seemed dead; the renowned attack troika of Jon Hess, Jesse Hubbard and Chris Massey was all but invisible.

But Princeton cut the halftime deficit to two goals on scores by midfielder Josh Sims and attack John Wynne. Sims had four goals to lead his team. T. J. Durnan led Duke with four goals.

Not unlike that performance at Shuart Stadium, Tierney -- with Trevor now on the sideline as an assistant coach for his Denver program -- was in a troublesome position against North Carolina at Lucas Oil Stadium in the national quarterfinals. Down 5-0 against the Tar Heels less than 10 minutes into the game -- Carolina had generated five tallies on six possessions, building its lead on only nine shots -- the hardened Denver head coach turned to Jamie Faus to relieve Ryan LaPlante between the pipes. The change didn't reap immediate rewards -- Carolina scored while the Pioneers were substituting the two keepers with Evan Connell cashing in on a turnover he caused against Colin Scott -- but the stage was set: Down six goals against an opponent that was firing all cylinders, could Tierney's Denver team ride the play of a new face in the net and claw its way back into the game with some of the game's best individual offensive weapons?

The answer: Absolutely, and eerily so. In 1998, Tierney's Princeton team used goals from Josh Sims and John Wynne to cut their halftime deficit to just two; the Tigers would then explode in the second half, putting five goals on the board and limiting the Blue Devils to just one further tally. In 2013, Tierney's Denver team was able to limp into the half down 9-4, limiting the erratic play that dominated its effort throughout the first quarter and getting a little offense going (offense that rang iron on six occasions over the first 30 minutes of play); the Pioneers would pragmatically chip away at its deficit over the course of the third quarter (North Carolina held a 10-7 lead at the end of the penultimate stanza but the Tar Heels not dictate the volition of play over those 15 minutes) and eventually exploded in the fourth quarter -- "Bang! Bang! "-type goals in the first six minutes of the final period drew the Pioneers within one, a garbage goal put back from Davey Emala pushed Carolina's lead back out to two, and then complete domination from Denver over the final 4:44 of reguation merited three tallies (the game-winner coming with 13 seconds left on the clock). The outcome was an incredible 12-11 victory for the Pioneers, the impetus for its second ever trip to Championship Weekend.

Bill Tierney finding victory when only failure appears to reside is as reliable as the cycle of cicadas.

Here are some brief notes on the game:

  • It was a tale of two halves: The 30 minutes of play was all Carolina while the Pioneers were a crushing force of destruction over the final half-hour of play. The Tar Heels were getting everything they wanted in the first half -- transition goals all over the place, engulfing Denver's defense in flames, and timely play from Kieran Burke in net -- suffocated the Pioneers. It was functional lightning from the Tar Heels and North Carolina looked like a team destined for a Memorial Monday invitation. The Heels were manufacturing their opportunities and maximizing them in all facets of play; it was complete annihilation and Denver was lost without hope (the Tar Heels even held a one-possession advantage over Denver, exacerbating the Pioneers' issues). The second half was a completely different story: Denver shot 36.36 percent (after shooting just 26.67 percent in the first half-hour (30 minutes that featured a half-dozen shots that clanged iron)), scored on half of their offensive opportunities, held a three-possession advantage over North Carolina, saw Faus turn away about 46 percent of Carolina's offensive opportunities with a save (more on this in the following bullet point), and limited North Carolina's transition opportunities from defense to offense. Connectedly, the Tar Heels wilted when it mattered most, mustering goals on only 16 percent of their second half opportunities and shooting just 14.29 percent, slowly seeing its halftime lead turn into dust. The dichotomy between the two halves was striking.
  • Jamie Faus takes home player of the game (and, arguably, season-saver) honors for Denver. His effort on the day merited him a 68.75 save percentage (75 percent in the second half) and Faus ended 44 percent of Denver's defensive possessions with a save (46 percent of the Pioneers' second half defensive opportunities involved a Faus save). The field defense in front of him played better over the second half, but his presence settled a rattled defensive unit and created problems for a Carolina offense that was humming in the first half and eating Ryan LaPlante alive. Faus was simply superb and his play -- indirectly -- created the offensive opportunities that Denver's offense needed push the Pioneers to Philadelphia.
  • The number of pipes that Denver hit in the first half were a factor in how the first half shook out (six first half pipe shots change the volition of play), but the Pioneers' proclivity for turning the ball over in the game's first 30 minutes of play was also a factor: The Pioneers lost the bean on over 44 percent of their first half offensive opportunities and North Carolina crushed Denver on corralling run-of-play (non-faceoff) loose balls (the margin was about 24 groundballs on a 100-possession basis). The second half still saw Denver turn the ball over more than Carolina, but the Pioneers committed such sins at a decreased rate; with three extra offensive possessions in their pocket (not to mention closing the run-of-play groundball gap to just three pickups over a 100-possession basis), a more-focused Pioneers offensive effort created manageable circumstances.

Here's a truncated tempo-free box score:

Denver-North Carolina: Truncated Tempo-Free Box Score
Metric Denver North Carolina
Offensive Efficiency (per 100 Offensive Opportunities) 34.38 35.29
Offensive Opportunities 32 34
Shots per Offensive Opportunity 1.09 1.09
Offensive Shooting Percentage 31.43% 32.43%
Turnovers (per 100 Offensive Opportunities) 31.25 38.24
Caused Turnovers (per 100 Defensive Opportunities) 11.76 12.50
Unforced Turnovers (per 100 Offensive Opportunities) 18.75 26.47
Team Save Percentage 45.45% 52.17%
Saves per 100 Defensive Opportunities 29.41 37.50
Run-of-Play Groundballs per 100 Total Possessions 22.73 7.58