May 3, 2012

St. John's Stuns Notre Dame; Cuse Rolls Nova

by Matt Forman | | Live Blog Replay | Twitter

Terence Leach had a goal and one assist to support Kieran McArdle's big seven-point day in St. John's upset of Notre Dame in the Big East semifinals Thursday. The Red Storm will play Syracuse in the championship game Saturday.
© John Strohsacker/ 

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Never mind St. John’s was facing the team the RPI said was No. 1 in the country, Notre Dame, on Thursday. The Red Storm packed for Saturday anyway.

And now, St. John’s will get to unload its suitcases and stick around for an extra couple days. That’s the Johnnies’ prize after shocking top-seeded Notre Dame 8-7 in the Big East Tournament semifinal on Thursday.

Behind a stellar seven-point performance by sophomore attackman Kieran McArdle and 13 saves from junior goalie Jeff Lowman, St. John’s jumped out to an early lead and held off a late Fighting Irish rally to secure the upset.

“We did expect to be here until Saturday. We were prepared to be here until Saturday,” St. John's coach Jason Miller said. “I don’t think our guys are the least bit intimidated coming into this environment and playing these teams. They all understood that we were going to be competitive this weekend, and if we could find a way to put it together for 60 minutes, we’d have every opportunity to win. It wasn’t me trying to be a coach and say, ‘Hey, pack for Saturday’ to get them in the right mental frame. We came here expecting to win. We needed to be packed until Saturday.”

St. John’s sent Notre Dame back to South Bend two days earlier than anticipated, and in the process sent shockwaves across the college lacrosse landscape. The message: The NCAA Tournament bubble just got a bit tighter. That’s bad news for teams like Penn State, Colgate, Fairfield and Denver, which likely were following Thursday’s action closely.

Thanks to the Red Storm victory, the Big East, which this weekend is hosting its inaugural conference tournament, suddenly became a two-bid league. Notre Dame’s resume speaks for itself — it will make the postseason either way — but the Fighting Irish’s loss opened the door for another team to get the automatic qualifier.

That’s the big-picture impact. But tonight’s story? What an impressive performance by St. John’s, which didn’t back down from the big stage, facing arguably the nation’s best team.

The Red Storm had reason to be comfortable facing Notre Dame, though. Despite never having beaten the Fighting Irish, St. John’s knew it could hang with its conference foe. St. John’s has led at halftime of each of the last three meetings — 5-2 last year, 4-3 earlier this season and 5-2 on Thursday — but the first two of those leads evaporated after intermission.

Not Thursday. But no one can say St. John’s didn’t make things exciting. Notre Dame outscored the Red Storm 4-0 in the fourth quarter, forced two turnovers in the final minute and got a couple good looks at the cage.

What may have been the Irish’s best opportunity to tie it, however, stopped before it started. Notre Dame forced a turnover around midfield and looked for a quick strike fast break, but play was whistled dead for an offsides call.

When Fighting Irish coach Kevin Corrigan was asked what happened, he said “You’re going to have to ask the official. He blew the call.”

What was the call?

“To play on,” Corrigan said. “It’s a ground ball. Play on. Their guy went offsides, and they stopped a fast break.”

Still, moments later, Jim Marlatt split a pair of defenders and fired a 12-yard step-down shot with about 10 seconds left that clanked off the pipe. Asked if he got a piece of the final shot Lowman said, “I’m not quite sure to tell you the truth.”

Regardless, St. John’s somehow held on.

“Notre Dame made it interesting at the end. They have a way of doing that, so it was to be expected a little bit. But this was the first time that we’ve hung on,” Miller said. “It’s amazing how it can go at the end of the game. We missed two clearing opportunities, and both of them were within the last minutes. It can change that quickly. We really just persevered at the end there.”

Corrigan credited Notre Dame for having “no quit,” which has been the Fighting Irish’s staple all season. But their slow start was too much to overcome.

“We did not represent ourselves well in the first half. That’s not who we are. That’s not the way we play,” Corrigan said. “We didn’t have very many extended offensive possessions. We didn’t clear the ball well. We didn’t get ground balls well. We didn’t cash in on our opportunities at that end. And we didn’t ride well. So that means you spend a lot of time on defense.”

Notre Dame entered Thursday with the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, noted for its suffocating style in 6-on-6 settings. But McArdle — the sophomore snubbed of the Big East’s offensive player of the year award despite leading the conference in scoring — didn’t pay attention to the Irish’s acclaimed unit.

McArdle contributed to seven of St. John’s eight scores, compiling three goals and four assists, while spending much of the day matched up against Kevin Randall, arguably the nation’s top cover defender. McArdle was everywhere, and did a little bit of everything: he scored driving from X, launching from out top and sitting on the doorstep, and he threw skip passes and dumped the ball off after driving.

“Kieran did was Kieran does. He’s been doing it all year,” Miller said. “Against the best defenseman in the country, he had 2 [goals] and 2 [assists] in the first half. Kevin Randall is no slouch. He was the defensive player of the year in this conference. For Kieran to do that as a sophomore is unbelievable, but he’s been doing it all year.”

After the win, the Red Storm knew they would be staying until Saturday, so they got to camp out and watch Thursday’s nightcap. Did Miller have a preference of which team he wanted to face?

“I do. But I’m not going to tell you,” he joked.

A few hours later, Miller learned the opponent St. John’s packed for: Syracuse.

Syracuse Plays Full 60 Minutes, Tops Villanova to Keep Season Alive

Tommy Palasek (one goal, three assists) was one of nine Syracuse goal-scorers, as the Orange kept its season alive by beating host Villanova.
© John Strohsacker/ 

Following Syracuse’s 15-6 defeat of Villanova in the second game of the Big East Tournament doubleheader, the Orange sounded like a team that knew their NCAA tournament fate: If Syracuse didn’t take the conference championship, it would be home for the rest of May — for only the second time since 1983.

“We talked about yesterday not being our last practice,” said senior midfielder Bobby Eilers, who scored a game- and career-high four goals in the win. “I took that to heart, and the whole team took that to heart. We know that we have to win out from here. It’s important to us. We don’t want to be that team that didn’t make the playoffs. It’s do-or-die for us. We just keep talking about winning five more games, and going all the way.

Said sophomore faceoff specialist Ricky Buhr, who won 11-of-20 draws: “I was very nervous going into the game, because this could be their last game. We all know what’s at stake: We lose and we’re done. So we’ve just got to keep going.”

But Syracuse’s task isn’t done. And the Orange know it.

“There’s definitely no weight off our shoulders yet. We’re still stuck in the woods,” Buhr said. “We need to get out in order to make the playoffs. We’ve got St. John’s on Saturday. Once we play them, hopefully we’ll come out on top. And it’s a new season. We’ve just got to keep climbing that ladder until we’re at the top.”

On Thursday evening, it was almost like Syracuse decided enough is enough. The Orange hadn’t played to their potential all year, but they knew the Big East Tournament provided one final chance to make the big show.

The result? Syracuse turned in its best game of the season.

“We’ve been stressing trying to play 60 minutes of lacrosse,” Syracuse coach John Desko said. "This year, we’ve either had a good first half, or had to play catch-up in the second half. So I thought we got pretty close to 60 minutes of lacrosse today, which was our goal.”

Syracuse got scoring contributions from nine different players, Tommy Palasek added a goal and three assists, and the Orange won the ground ball battle 41-22 while holding Villanova’s top scorers Kevin Cunnigham and Jack Rice to three combined goals.

For Villanova, Thursday’s loss could have ended its hopes for an NCAA tournament appearance. The Wildcats have now dropped three straight games — including last week’s 15-11 defeat to Providence — which means their bubble likely has burst.

“It was a tough way to end our season, especially with a group of seniors that had done so much for our program. The last 10 minutes or so [after the game, and before the press conference] have been pretty tough,” Villanova coach Michael Corrado said. “With St. John’s playing Syracuse, one of them is going to get an AQ, and Notre Dame is going to get an at-large. So it probably doesn’t help us very much in our bid for an at-large. You never know what’s going to happen, but it definitely didn’t help us.”

Villanova dropped outside the RPI top-20 with the loss, though Corrado pointed to its strength of schedule — second in the country — as a sticking point for the Wildcats’ at-large case, along with four top-20 victories.

But the story of Thursday’s late game was Syracuse’s “sense of urgency,” as Desko described it. And, as a result, either Syracuse or St. John’s — Empire State squads both — will qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

“Good things happened for us today,” Desko said.

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