Final Four Preview: Men’s lacrosse is two games away from a national championship

Cavaliers set to face Duke in NCAA semifinals to kick off Championship Weekend

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Coach Lars Tiffany will try to complete Phase III of Virginia's master plan this weekend as the Cavaliers pursue their sixth national title. 

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

For the first time in eight years, the Virginia men’s lacrosse team is one of the last four teams standing in the NCAA Tournament. No. 3 seed Virginia (15-3, 3-1 ACC) will meet No. 2 seed Duke (13-4, 2-2 ACC) Saturday at noon for the first game of the weekend. 

If the Cavaliers win against the Blue Devils, they will face either Penn State (16-1, 5-0 Big 10) or Yale (14-3, 5-1 Ivy League) in the 2019 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship game Monday. All games will be played in Philadelphia, Pa., at Lincoln Financial Field and televised on ESPN2.

With the Cavaliers looking like one of the strongest teams in the country, this is what their road to a sixth national title looks like.

No. 2 seed Duke 

Duke has consistently been considered one of the top teams in the country all season long. Top to bottom, Duke is extremely talented and well-balanced. Winners of five of their last six games, the Blue Devils are in phenomenal form and firing on all cylinders. However, because Duke’s last three wins were all decided by just one score, the Blue Devils may have more concerns than their record indicates.

What you need to know

Duke’s greatest strength is its dominant defense. The Blue Devils have allowed just 9.41 goals per game this year, which is the sixth-lowest mark in the country and the best among the teams left in the tournament. No team has scored more than 13 goals against Duke this season. 

While Duke’s defensive success is certainly a team effort, senior goalkeeper Turner Uppgren has anchored the defense all year in cage. Uppgren has the seventh-best goals-against average in the nation while no other Final Four goalie is in the top 15. 

On offense, sophomore attackman Joe Robertson accounts for nearly a fifth of the team’s total goals this season. In addition to Robertson, junior attackman Joey Manown is a strong supporting goalscorer, and senior midfielder Brad Smith is a well-rounded contributor — second on the team in goals and first in assists. 

Beyond those three, one of Duke’s most important offensive stars may be its youngest — sophomore midfielder Nakeie Montgomery. Montgomery is a big-time player who thrives in the spotlight. He was critical in the Blue Devils’ postseason run last year and already has 10 points through two tournament games this year.

How to beat them

The Blue Devils were the only ACC team to beat Virginia this year, so the Cavaliers cannot take them lightly. While Duke is solid defensively, its offense has struggled. The Blue Devils are the only team without a top-10 scoring offense left in the tournament.

When the Blue Devils defeated the Cavaliers in April, Duke used a 7-2 run in the second half to surge ahead. Virginia cannot allow another scoring slump Saturday. In the Blue Devils’ four losses this season, they never scored more than 10 goals. Considering Virginia averages 14.22 goals per game, the Cavaliers have to trust their fast-paced style and All-ACC goalscorers to deliver. If Virginia can turn turn this game into a high-scoring affair, Duke won’t be able to keep up.

No. 5 seed Yale 

After losing twice to Penn earlier this season, Yale avenged its past losses by defeating the Quakers last weekend to advance to Championship Weekend. The defending national champions are the only team in the country to beat top-seeded Penn State and haven’t lost a game to a team other than Penn since February. 

What you need to know

Compared to Duke, Yale is a far better offensive team, with multiple elite scorers and the ability to put up big numbers. Three Bulldogs — junior attackmen Matt Gaudet and Jackson Morrill and freshman attackman Matt Brandau — have scored 40 goals or more in 2019. That attacking trio has helped Yale average 15.65 goals per game, the second-best mark in the country. That the Bulldogs have scored 38 goals in the first two rounds of the tournament is a testament to their scoring strength.

In addition to a stellar attacking unit, Yale is armed with the best faceoff specialist in the country in junior TD Ierlan. Ierlan’s 76.1 faceoff winning percentage leads the nation and provides the Bulldogs key additional offensive possessions. Giving a highly explosive team more goal-scoring opportunities is undoubtedly a recipe for success.    

How to beat them

While the Bulldogs are a strong scoring team, they aren’t the most accurate shooters. Yale’s 29.2 shot percentage — worst among Final Four teams — isn’t a bigger concern only because the Bulldogs average a whopping 53.7 shots per game. If Virginia can limit the number of shots Yale takes, the Cavaliers should be able to keep up with the Bulldogs in the scoring department.

The biggest X-factor in this potential matchup might just be the battle at the faceoff X. Ierlan and Virginia freshman faceoff specialist Petey LaSalla are both top-20 players nationally at their position. Whichever of the two is able to win the battle will put his team in a terrific position to win. For Virginia, LaSalla’s play is critical as the Cavaliers must prioritize controlling the tempo if they are to play Yale. If the Bulldogs are in rhythm, they could put together yet another 20-goal game.

No. 1 seed Penn State 

Top-seeded Penn State is widely considered the best team in the country, and the Nittany Lions have the resume to back up their lofty reputation. Penn State has lost just one game all year and haven’t tasted defeat in three months. The Nittany Lions are star-studded and in the middle of a dominant season, which is precisely why they’re the odds-on favorites to win the national title.   

What you need to know

Unlike the other Final Four teams who all had to survive overtime thrillers in the quarterfinals, Penn State has cruised to Championship Weekend after scoring 20-plus goals in back-to-back games — the first team to do so in the NCAA Tournament since 1990. 

Penn State’s offense is historically good. The Nittany Lions lead the country with anaverage of 18 goals per game and an average scoring margin of 7.53.

While Penn State has talent throughout its squad, junior attackmen Mac O’Keefe and Grant Ament are two of the best players in the country and spearhead the Nittany Lions’ explosive offense. O’Keefe averages 4.41 goals per game and Ament averages 5.69 assists per game — both good for the best in the nation.

In addition to O’Keefe and Ament, senior defenseman Chris Sabia is Penn State’s third all-conference selection. Although the Nittany Lions’ offense grabs all the headings, Sabia anchors a defense that allows just 10.47 goals per game on average. 

How to beat them

Regardless of how well Virginia plays, Penn State’s offense is too good to be completely shut down. Instead, the Cavaliers should follow the blueprint Yale laid out in February when the Bulldogs handed the Nittany Lions their only loss of the season. In that game, Yale won 25-31 faceoffs and picked up 10 more ground balls than Penn State, allowing the Bulldogs to control the game early. 

If Virginia can win the faceoff and ground ball battles — which will require strong performances from LaSalla and All-ACC senior midfielder Ryan Conrad, while avoiding an early deficit — the Cavaliers will have a great shot at pulling off the upset. 

The bottom line — difficult, but doable

Virginia’s road to a National Championship certainly isn’t easy. That said, Virginia has demonstrated time and time again that it can overcome adversity and win in high-pressure situations. 

In the very first matchup of Championship Weekend, Virginia will face Duke Saturday in Philadelphia, Pa. Faceoff is set for noon.

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