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No. 6 seed men’s lacrosse claws past No. 3 seed Johns Hopkins in double-overtime thriller to reach Championship Weekend

Virginia never led — not until it won the game

<p>After the game-winner, the Cavaliers celebrate yet another trip to Championship Weekend.</p>

After the game-winner, the Cavaliers celebrate yet another trip to Championship Weekend.

It had to be graduate attackman Connor Shellenberger. Deep in the second overtime, a season and a career hanging tenuously on the line, it only made sense for Shellenberger to be the one whose goal delivered No. 6 seed Virginia an 11-10 win over No. 3 seed Johns Hopkins. The goal triggered a torrent of orange-and-blue jerseys that poured onto the field to celebrate victory in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament quarterfinal at Johnny Unitas Stadium.

The Cavaliers’ (12-5, 1-4 ACC) victory jettisoned the Blue Jays (11-5, 5-0 Big 10) from the tournament. This came after an astonishing lacrosse game that included one pulled goalie, two overtimes, three goals each from Shellenberger and freshman attackman McCabe Millon, four separate runs of three goals or more and more madness in a game whose legacy will surely stretch for decades. 

“You saw two teams completely empty the tank out there,” Coach Lars Tiffany said.

Johns Hopkins embarked immediately on a 4-0 run that stretched until midway through the first quarter, buoyed by two goals from senior attackman Russell Melendez, who ended the day with four. 

The Virginia defense repeatedly huddled together, but the goals kept coming. On the other end, graduate goalie Chayse Ierlan consistently rebuffed the Cavalier attack, forcefully stamping his mark on the game on his way to 15 saves. Virginia pulled junior goalie Matt Nunes midway through the quarter, after he surrendered the four goals and made just one save.

Sophomore goalie Kyle Morris replaced Nunes. Morris had stepped in for Nunes after the first quarter of a game earlier in the season against Duke, but Tiffany had attributed that change to a minor Nunes injury. This was different — Morris had outperformed Nunes in practice all week. 

“There were actually one or two coaches who were thinking, ‘Maybe we should start Kyle,’” Tiffany said. “I said, ‘Woah, woah, woah. First start in an NCAA quarterfinal against Johns Hopkins?’”

But with Nunes struggling and Morris, who had earned his spot over the season and the last week, waiting on the sideline, the decision was clear. Morris finished with eight saves and six goals allowed.

The tide slowly reversed as the quarter progressed. Virginia scored twice, first via graduate attackman Jack Boyden, who totaled three goals on the day, and then with Shellenberger. The Blue Jays nabbed a goal, but then, as the game crossed from the first to the second quarter, Millon scored twice in a row, slicing the Cavalier deficit to 5-4. The freshman dazzled all day before a home crowd, and for his second goal he peeled around the goal and leaped, then spun in midair before somehow slotting the ball into a minute opening.

“These are the moments you dream of as a kid,” Millon said.

The game stayed like that, tilting back and forth, each side ripping off a couple goals at a time. By early in the third quarter, Virginia had climbed out of its early hole and tied the game at 7-7. 

Johns Hopkins spent the rest of the quarter methodically reestablishing its lead, building a buffer it hoped would hold through the game’s final minutes. The Blue Jays scored three times in less than three minutes, leeching time and repelling Virginia. 

One golden opportunity to break the scoring drought materialized for Virginia, a deep pass floating over a Johns Hopkins head and into the stick of Boyden, who stood on the goal’s doorstep. It should have been an easy shot. Boyden caught it, faked and then threw the ball into Ierlan, who once again, as if magnetized, sprawled precisely into the ball’s path.

“I felt good all day and confident in the group all the way to the very end,” Ierlan said.

The Blue Jay fans clapped and stomped in unison, urged on by the school’s band, which had trekked the five miles from campus. That band, though, eventually went silent. Out of a ground ball scrum five minutes into the fourth quarter, graduate attackman Payton Cormier emerged with the ball, which eventually wound up with Boyden, who scored. The goal snapped a drought that had lasted almost 14 minutes for Virginia. 

Cormier had seemed invisible all day. The newly crowned most prolific scorer in the history of Division I lacrosse missed his first nine shots. But a few minutes after Boyden scored, the ball swung to him in transition, and he then ripped a shot past Ierlan. Virginia had tugged itself to just one goal away from evening the score.

With three minutes left, that tying goal arrived. Millon maneuvered past a defender, probed around a little and then simply stopped and scooped the ball into the bottom corner. The Virginia section went berserk. 

But the celebration paused immediately, because the officials rushed to the monitor, checking to see if a guilty toe had brushed the crease. The referees, after hunching over the replay for a long couple minutes, decided it had not. Another cheer cascaded down the stands. 

So the game was tied at 10-10. This game between two venerable lacrosse programs, meeting for a record 17th time in the NCAA Tournament, was tied with three minutes left. Everything settled to a hush. 

The Blue Jays weathered two Virginia attacks in the final couple minutes, the second time a man down, a Cormier shot whistling harmlessly over the goal the first time and the Cavaliers turning it over the second time. So overtime, and all its unbearable tension, arrived.

The momentum in overtime sped in one direction and then the other. Morris produced two enormous saves for Virginia. Nobody, however, could score. So the game headed to a second overtime, the first double-overtime NCAA Tournament game since Virginia defeated Duke in the semifinals in 2019. 

Then came Shellenberger, and the moment that will last a lifetime and perhaps longer. He motored down the right alley and dipped behind the cage, then suddenly spun, leaped and threw the ball into the smallest shred of available net. All he would talk about afterward, though, was the defense. 

“They gave us so many opportunities in overtime,” Shellenberger said. “It was frustrating. We wanted to close it for them.”

For all the game’s tightness, Virginia dominated nearly every statistical category. It won the ground ball battle 40-27, the faceoff battle 16-10 and the turnover battle 25-19. It outshot Johns Hopkins 50-36, and it went 25-30 on clears to Johns Hopkins’s 17-26. It also played perhaps its best defensive game of the season.

The Blue Jays’ only statistical triumph came in the saves department, as Ierlan’s tremendous day helped tug them through the rough patches. It could not, in the end, stop Virginia. The Cavaliers, who lost four games in a row recently, somehow reached deep within themselves and produced a belief that made all the difference.

“The power of belief,” Tiffany said. “I’ve been on some sidelines where you can tell, it’s not going our way today. But not today, even though we never led until the very end.”

Virginia will now return to Lincoln Financial Field and Championship Weekend, to the same round and the same stadium where heartbreak visited the Cavaliers a year ago. The whole season has built up to this moment. Virginia will face No. 7 seed Maryland at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, and the game will air on ESPN2.


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