May 15, 2011

Denver Shows It's One of the 'Big Boys' Now

by Theresa Smith |

DENVER -- A record, overflow crowd of 2,575 huddled in 48-degree weather to watch a historic event: the first NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament game west of the Mississippi River. Based on the results, the novelty might wear off quickly. The team from a rising lacrosse pocket, the University of Denver, fell behind five times, battled through seven ties, and emerged with a 13-10 victory Sunday over Villanova, of Big East pedigree.

While Denver coach Bill Tierney predicted a transformation when he moved west from Princeton two years ago, it is well ahead of schedule, with Denver booking reservations to fly back east to meet Johns Hopkins in the quarterfinals next Saturday in Hempstead, N.Y.

A small stream of students rushed Peter Barton Stadium, despite security, in celebration of the first NCAA tournament victory in school history, following losses in 2006, '08 and '10.

The score was tied 10-10 starting the fourth quarter, when Denver's season-long scoring leader Mark Matthews scooped up the rebound off a save and buried the ball for an 11-10 lead. Pioneers freshman goalkeeper Jamie Faus made a challenging save moments later, one of six in the quarter.

"That was the difference really,'' said Villanova coach Michael Corrado.

After another stellar defensive play -- an interception by long pole defender Brendan DeBlois -- the Pioneers patiently worked the ball around and cashed in on Jeremy Noble's speed and accuracy. Bursting across the crease, the freshman from Orangeville, Ontario, shot from the slot for a 12-10 lead and buried his fourth goal of the game. Denver won the ensuing faceoff and maintained possession, and after a Wildcats timeout, Alex Demopoulos, a junior attackman from Canton, Conn., sprinted from behind the net, and shook his defender near the right crease for a clear shot to boost the lead to 13-10 and extinguish Villanova's comeback hopes.

Villanova (11-5) was whistled for eight penalties compared to two for Denver (14-2). Corrado declined to discuss the disparity, but Matthews said the Wildcats were "a little chippy.''

Jeremy Noble overcame a defensive lapse, scored four goals and dished two assists in Denver's 13-10 NCAA tournament first-round victory over Villanova. "These Canadian kids have ice in their veins," Pioneers head coach Bill Tierney said.

© Trevor Brown

Matthews, who finished with three second-half goals, was part of a trio who scored three goals in a 41-second span after falling behind 8-5 early in the third quarter.

"We had enough steam, enough heart, enough class to win a game against a very good team,'' Tierney said. "It continues to make them believe that they can be one of the big boys. That has been the mantra all year long -- not just play with the big boys, but be a big boy.''

The players admitted that the pressure of playing the first NCAA tournament game west of the Mississippi River and trying to win the first NCAA game in school history was a burden.

"We know how much it means to the university and not just the university, but the city,'' Faus said. "This game had a different feel than any game we've played. It had an electric feel.''

Faus and Matthews, in particular, struggled early in that atmosphere as the Pioneers fell behind 2-0 and trailed 7-5 at halftime.

"This thing had a higher speed to it, more emotion to it and the people in the stands made the place rock,'' Tierney said. Comparing his experience, including six NCAA championships and now his 17th NCAA quarterfinal appearance, to that of his players, Tierney said: "It doesn't do good that I've been there. I couldn't throw the ball in the ocean from the shore. I worry about people putting a load on this team's shoulders. We're very young ... All they know is they want to get better."

Tierney's squad blends a mix of local players, several from traditional East Coast hotbeds, and a few exceptionally talented Canadians (Matthews of Oshawa, Ontario, Noble of Orangeville, Ont., and Cameron Flint of Georgetown, Ontario).

Noble's reaction to getting beat on defense early in the third quarter was epic. He scooped up three ground balls, scored one goal and fed Flint for another, which tied it 8-8.

"These Canadian kids have ice in their veins," Tierney marveled. "They don't get flustered, so when they make mistakes, they stay with it... Jeremy's not the biggest, not the fastest, but he's got heart."

At the outset, Villanova used alternating faceoff specialists to win six of nine draws against Denver's vaunted Chase Carraro, who lost two early on violations.

"I thought Chase was a little wired today, so amped up,'' Tierney said. "He needed to settle down.''

When Carraro reversed the numbers in the third quarter, winning six of nine faceoffs, Denver's extra possessions fueled its comeback.

"We just said to ourselves at halftime that that was the worst half of lacrosse we've played in a long time and that we had to come out strong in the third quarter,'' Matthews said. "That's our bread and butter, the third quarter.''

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