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Nunes’ heroics lead No. 2 men’s lacrosse to comeback victory against No. 16 Harvard

The junior goalie generated an ecstatic, unrestrained celebration with his coast-to-coast game-winner

<p>Senior defender Cole Kastner pushes a Harvard attacker</p>

Senior defender Cole Kastner pushes a Harvard attacker

Things looked frequently frustrating and gloomy for No. 2 Virginia (9-1, 0-0 ACC) Saturday, as if the northeastern chill had frozen its typically free-flowing style. But after sputtering offensively all day, the Cavaliers scored the game’s final seven goals, all in the fourth quarter, to win. Before a record crowd at Jordan Field, Virginia dispelled defeat and charged back to grab a 13-10 victory over No. 16 Harvard (6-3, 0-2 Ivy). The win came on the back of a stellar performance by junior goalie Matt Nunes, who recorded multiple impressive saves and even registered the game-winning goal in the fourth quarter. 

“That’s Virginia lacrosse right there,” Nunes said. “Never stop believing.”

Junior faceoff man Anthony Ghobriel, the team’s top specialist, missed his third consecutive game, presenting an early warning sign for Virginia. His absence haunted the Cavaliers again, at least at first, as they went 6-17 on faceoffs across the first three quarters.

Things did begin well, however. Virginia exited the first quarter leading 2-1 after goals from graduate attackman Payton Cormier, who totaled four goals on the day, and graduate midfielder Jack Boyden.

But then Harvard reeled off four in a row, dominating faceoffs, commanding possession and turning the game into a low-scoring tussle. The Crimson grabbed the momentum, cheered on by the fans that ringed the fences and overflowed the stands.

Virginia’s scoring drought stretched on for more than 20 minutes. They were eventually saved by junior midfielder Griffin Schutz, slipping past one defender and squeezing by another to narrow the deficit to 5-3. 

Harvard quickly replenished its lead, though. Sophomore attackman Teddy Malone scored, and the Crimson won the ensuing faceoff. They then turned the ball over, however, giving Virginia a critical opportunity before halftime and a chance to bite into the stubborn deficit. Virginia flopped on that chance. The Harvard defense, once again, made one of the nation’s premier offenses look helpless, and the Crimson carried a 6-3 lead into halftime. 

Things only got worse after the break. A turnover a couple minutes into the second half led to a Harvard goal by senior attackman Graham Blake. Another turnover minutes later caused Virginia Coach Lars Tiffany to place his hands atop his head, where they remained as Blake scored again.

Finally a minor revival occurred. It started with Virginia junior defenseman Tommy McNeal grabbing the ball after the faceoff, racing downfield and, as he got shoved in the back, scoring. Virginia continued shaking life into its lethargic play — Nunes saved a shot with his mask, Boyden batted in a goal off a Cormier feed, Nunes rebuffed a point-blank shot and Cormier scored. The three-goal run narrowed the deficit to 8-6. 

Then came the day’s first unbelievable Nunes highlight, a testament to the goalkeeper's sometimes unheralded genius. A Harvard attacker, peeling around the goal, ripped a shot, and Nunes blocked it. It then bounced to the same attacker, who faked another shot — sending Nunes sprawling to the ground — and shot again. Nunes, still on the ground, reached up and somehow knocked the ball away. Finally, a second Harvard attacker, on the goal’s doorstep, picked it up and fired a third shot at Nunes — which was also blocked.

It all combined for a purely ridiculous sequence. But Harvard scored the game’s next two goals, pushing its lead back to 10-6 with almost the entire fourth quarter remaining.

Despite starting out with a four-goal deficit, the rest of the final quarter seemed a totally different game, in texture and in the box score. Harvard outshot Virginia 41-27 in the first three quarters — Virginia outshot Harvard 18-5 in the fourth. Harvard won the ground ball battle 39-27 in the first three quarters — Virginia won it 14-5 in the fourth. Harvard controlled the faceoff dot 11-6 in the first three quarters — Virginia controlled it 8-1 in the fourth.

Most importantly, Virginia scored seven goals in the fourth quarter, and Harvard scored just one. Graduate faceoff man Thomas Colucci, after struggling all day, won faceoff after faceoff, delivering the ball to a suddenly humming offense. 

The Cavaliers scored four goals in seven minutes to knot the score at 10-10. Then came the day’s second unbelievable Nunes highlight. He cradled the ball inside his own half, looking for an outlet, then suddenly bursted forward. For a moment, he slowed down, considering his next move. Then he kept going, through the flailing Harvard sticks. He went all the way to the goalmouth, and when he got there he bounced the ball into the bottom corner to put Virginia in the lead. 

“Kind of saw the gates open,” Nunes said. “So had to take my opportunity on that one.”

Virginia added two more goals after this before the game ended. The sideline mobbed Nunes at the final buzzer, celebrating the player who made 16 saves and helped engineer a stunning comeback.

The victory marked Virginia’s final non-conference outing before the grueling ACC schedule arrives. The first three sluggish quarters provided a warning call for Virginia, while the indomitable fourth quarter showed a blaze of excitement. 

The four-week ACC gauntlet begins Saturday against North Carolina. The game will start at noon at Klöckner Stadium and air on ESPNU.


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