Despite a slow start to the season and three heartbreaking overtime losses, No. 20 men’s lacrosse (8–6 overall, 4–2 Ivy League) has fought their way into the NCAA Tournament.
One week after losing their last game of the regular season to Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., they emerged from the Ivy League tournament Sunday afternoon as Ivy League Tournament Champions with an automatic bid to the national tournament.
On Saturday, April 29, the Tigers were leading the top-10 ranked Cornell Big Red (11–3 overall, 5–1 Ivy League) by one goal with under two minutes to go in the de facto Ivy League regular-season championship game. The Tigers surrendered a goal with roughly one minute left to the Big Red midfielder Aiden Blake, who then scored two minutes into overtime to seal the win for Cornell, giving them the win and the top seed in this weekend’s tournament.
That was the Tigers’ third overtime loss of the season, all of which have come against highly ranked opponents. The Tigers took No. 10 Penn and No. 16 Rutgers to a fifth quarter earlier in the year as well before falling.
“After three tough OT losses, obviously you want to try to learn from each of those games,” head coach Matt Madalon told The Daily Princetonian after the game. “You hope at this time of the year during playoff lacrosse that everyone commits to making one more play to try to keep the season alive.”
The Tigers made good use of their close game experience on Friday in their Ivy League semifinal matchup against Penn (7–6, 4–2) at Robert K. Kraft Field in Manhattan, the home of the Columbia Lions.
The Tigers won 9–8 in a defensive brawl, in which junior goalkeeper Michael Gianforcaro, who has the second-highest save percentage in the nation, showcased his skills and tenacity between the pipes with 15 saves.
“Gianforcaro continues to play well behind our defense and make plays out of the cage. He impacts our defense with intensity and aggressiveness,” Madalon said.
The 9–8 Tiger victory — ending with the same score as the March 18 matchup in Philadelphia that the Quakers won — began with a Quaker faceoff win, and an early man-up opportunity for the Quaker offense off a Tiger offsides.
Midfielder Hugh Mullane put the Quakers on the board first, capitalizing on the extra-man advantage. Just 30 seconds later, the Quakers added another, when attackman Cam Rubin beat Gianforcaro with a low shot.
Princeton star sophomore attacker Coulter Mackesy, a nominee for the Tewaaraton Award — an annual award for the most outstanding American college lacrosse men's and women's players — quickly responded with a bounce shot into the back of the net after receiving a pass from senior midfielder Christian Ronda.
Ronda scored just two minutes later to tie the game, and a third Tiger goal, this time from senior midfielder Jake Stevens, sent Princeton into the second quarter up 3–2.
The second quarter was dominated by both defenses and goalkeepers, as the two teams combined for nine saves and 10 forced turnovers and only two goals. A late goal by Mackesy gave the Tigers a 4–3 lead heading into halftime.
The physical defensive dogfight was on display again in the third quarter as the Tigers and Quakers struggled to find anything resembling an offensive opportunity.
The Tiger defense demonstrated their grit and toughness in their biggest game of the season. Junior defenseman Pace Billings shined during his one-on-one matchups against Penn midfielder Sam Handley, also a Tewaaraton Award Finalist this year. Billings consistently denied Handley any space to shoot and forced the Quaker offense to look elsewhere.
After 45 minutes of play and only eight goals, the assembled students, alumni, families, and fans saw scoring fireworks in the fourth quarter.
When a goal by Penn attackman Ben Smith gave the Quakers a 6–5 lead with only 11 minutes remaining, the Tigers’ season was in jeopardy. But the Tiger offense, with their backs against the wall, pounced.
Stevens found himself open in front of the net during a man-up opportunity and tied the game at 6–6 after a pretty pass from senior attackman Weston Carpenter. The Tigers balanced scoring attack soon added two more goals from senior midfielder Alexander Vardaro and sophomore midfielder Sean Cameron, respectively.
The two-goal Tiger lead was then cut down to one by Handley, but Ronda responded with a rocket of a shot that sent the Tiger faithful into a frenzy.
The Quakers’ last chance came at a faceoff with 13.5 seconds left down by only one goal. First-year faceoff specialist Andrew McMeekin continued his strong performance for the Tigers with a faceoff win to seal the Tigers’ spot in Sunday’s title game.
The Tigers entered Sunday’s game against No. 11 Yale (9–5 overall, 3–3 Ivy League) needing a win to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.
If Friday’s nailbiter victory was won by the defense, Sunday’s 19–10 thrashing of Yale showed the true potential of the Princeton offense. The win saw 13 different Tigers pick up at least one point.
Princeton proved to be too strong for the Yale Bulldogs right from the first faceoff, won by McMeekin. He then relayed the ball to senior attackman Alex Slusher, who put the Tigers in the lead after only six seconds.
The Bulldogs responded with a pole goal from defenseman Jack Stuzin just 15 seconds later. However, that would be the closest the Bulldogs would be for the rest of the game.
The Tiger’s offense unleashed a barrage, scoring three goals in the next 150 seconds. Senior defensive midfielder Beau Pederson showed some genius with an easy goal off a hidden ball trick that left the Bulldog goalie looking in the wrong direction. Goals by Stevens and Cameron then put the Tigers up 4–1.
The Princeton offense had plenty more in the tank for the first quarter. Cameron scored his second of the quarter on a rocket that blew past the Yale goalie. Junior midfielder Tommy Barnds then netted his first before Stevens, who led the Tigers on the day with six goals, added another on a man-up chance to give the Tigers seven goals for the quarter.
The second quarter was more of the same from the Tiger offense, as they scored six more goals. Stevens and Cameron each reached a hat trick on the day as the floodgates opened onto a Yale defense that had surrendered 23 goals to the Tigers earlier in the season.
Three more Tigers added themselves to the box score in the second quarter, as Mackesy scored his first of two, Vardaro netted two, and first-year midfielder Jack Dunphey got his first career postseason goal.
The Tigers went back to the locker room for halftime with a 13–3 lead, having shocked the higher-ranked Bulldogs. The Tiger defense was led by Gianforcaro, who finished with 17 saves, and senior defenseman Cathal Roberts, who had three ground balls. The pair led a unit that took the bite out of the Bulldogs, holding them to only three goals in the first half just two days after the Bulldog offense had scored 22 goals on the highly-ranked Cornell defense in the other Ivy semifinal.
The Tigers never looked back after their breakneck start and had their sights firmly set on the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Princeton lead grew to as large as 12 when Stevens fired a shot into the top right corner from distance for his fifth goal of the day.
The Tiger lead never dropped below seven goals for the rest of the game. After an emotional cardiac nailbiter of a win in the semifinal against Penn, the Tigers gave the Princeton faithful a smooth win to prolong their season, riding the backs of Gianforcaro and Stevens.
“The most impressive part about the midfield crew is its next man up,” Madalon told the ESPN broadcast after the game. “We’re playing banged up and playing hurt. Jake [Stevens] does it all for us and in a game where for seniors it’s win or go home, it’s awesome to see him step up. I'm so proud of that guy.”
“It took everybody, we knew if we lost we were going home,” Gianforcaro told the ESPN broadcast. “Winning an Ivy League tournament title is great and we’re really happy. But more than that we just want a chance to keep playing together.”
The Tigers will play No. 5 Penn State (9–4, 4–1 Big Ten) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, May 14. Princeton will look to exceed last year’s NCAA Tournament performance, when they made it to the national semifinal before falling to eventual national champion Maryland.
“We’re excited to stay alive,” said Madalon.
Harrison Blank is a contributor to the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
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