May 5, 2012

Syracuse Wins Inaugural Big East Tournament Title

by Matt Forman | | Live Blog Replay | Twitter

Syracuse avoided missing the NCAA tournament for just the second time since 1983, defeating St. John's 12-4 in the Big East men's lacrosse championship game Saturday to earn the conference's automatic qualifier.

© John Strohsacker/

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Funny how things work out for Syracuse and coach John Desko.

Desko opposed the formation of a Big East men's lacrosse conference, fearing the Orange would lose some of its traditional rivals. And Desko didn't like the idea of a conference tournament, knowing that would require playing some teams twice in the same season.

But now, more than anyone, Desko is thankful both happened.

As it turns out, a 12-4 victory Saturday over St. John's before 2,586 fans in the Big East championship game — the league's inaugural postseason tournament — saved Syracuse's season. The Orange entered the weekend at 6-7, and they wouldn't have made the NCAA tournament without securing the automatic qualifier.

"It's great to win the Big East championship, and it's great to be in the NCAAs again," Desko said to conclude his opening statement of the post-game press conference.

It's somewhat ironic that Syracuse will soon leave the Big East for the ACC — possibly as early as 2013. But those are just details, and you can't fault Desko. Syracuse did what it took to make the postseason.

Behind a strong effort from seniors Tommy Palasek and Bobby Eilers and a first-half shutout from freshman goalie Bobby Wardwell, the 2012 Orange avoided being "that team." That is, they escaped the dreaded title of becoming just the second Syracuse team to miss the NCAA Tournament since 1983.

"We're here now," Palasek said. "You can say what you want about the season. But there's still four more games left in the season for everybody. Everyone's record doesn't matter any more. It feels good that we were able to keep the streak alive of getting to the playoffs. But we still have the same goal: Get to the national championship and win it."

Syracuse became the third squad to secure an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, joining Lehigh (Patriot League) and Loyola (ECAC). The Orange won't have to sweat out the bracket show Sunday evening, as the selection committee releases the postseason matchups and pairings, but it ensured Denver, Fairfield and Penn State will watch closely.

But the immediate story Saturday was Syracuse's dominant overall effort. Who wants to see this Orange team in the postseason? It will be a tough, scary draw. Some have started to speculate that Syracuse might meet UMass in the first round, depending on what happens elsewhere across the lacrosse landscape and in conference tournaments.

The Orange, which had won consecutive games just twice earlier in the season — against Army and Albany, and then against Rutgers and Hobart — seems to have figured it out. Just three weeks ago Syracuse was doubled up 12-6 by Cornell. This weekend Syracuse looked like a different group. St. John's coach Jason Miller noticed.

"Around this time of the year, Syracuse seems to find another gear," Miller said. "It's been that way ever since I was a kid, and I give them an awful lot of credit."

A case could be made that Syracuse's turnaround started in the second half against Notre Dame a week ago. After going into halftime down 4-0, the Orange rallied in the second half. It got within one goal midway through the fourth quarter but lost 8-6.

That led to back-to-back wins this weekend, against a pair of teams playing for their tournament lives.

"The team has really adjusted," Desko said. "This whole thing is starting to come together for us."

Palasek was unstoppable Saturday, and he was named the Big East tournament's most outstanding player for his three-goal, three-assist performance. Eilers, the hero Thursday night against Villanova, tacked on two and two of his own.

Wardwell, who was inserted as the starter against Princeton on April 7, made eight saves. The close defense — an entirely new unit from last year — held St. John's scoreless for a 32-minute stretch.

"We've been working on pressing out and being aggressive for the last week or so," said Syracuse defenseman Brian Megill. "We're trying to get a little bit more of the quick slide, to get in on their hands, especially when they go for a roll and they turn their back, you can come adjacent. We did that a couple times against Villanova and did today."

Aside from goalie play — Syracuse alternated starting Matt Lerman and Dominic Lamolinara in cage earlier this year — Desko made a point of highlighting Syracuse's faceoff and man-up play as two key areas of improvement. The Orange entered April winning about 45 percent of faceoffs and converting extra-man opportunities at less than 30 percent.

Desko shuffled the deck — Megill started seeing time at the X, while Ricky Buhr and Chris Daddio heated up, and freshman Matt Walters became a man-up specialist — and Syracuse is reaping the rewards. The Orange won 10 of 19 faceoffs Saturday and converted five of seven extra-man opportunities.

"Things are just starting to settle down, and these guys are coming into their own," Desko said.

Just in time for May.

Desko joked to the Syracuse Post-Standard earlier this week that he was "kind of a hypocrite" for initially challenging the idea of Big East lacrosse conference and a postseason tournament.

Now it's safe to assume Desko has warmed to the idea.

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