April 10, 2013

Johns Hopkins Facing Must-Wins to Avoid Tournament Miss

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Beginning with Saturday's rivarly game at Maryland, Johns Hopkins begins a stretch of what could all be must-win games. 
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Two hours had passed since coach Dave Pietramala's team had found another maddening way to lose a game — in this case, a 10-9 defeat by Albany that pushed Johns Hopkins toward a dangerous corner as the Blue Jays tried to keep another playoff berth in sight.

Pietramala, the last university employee left in the Cordish Lacrosse Center late Friday night, was the picture of exhaustion and exasperation in his spacious office, as watched the replay of nightmare that had just concluded outside on Homewood Field.

That costly stumble against surging Albany (8-3) left the Hopkins players and coaches furious and bewildered.

How could this group of talented, experienced lacrosse players allow this to happen? How could the Blue Jays do so many things well, yet do just enough things wrong to be sitting in such a precarious position in mid-April? How could this team be 6-4 and heading toward desperate times?

Forget, for now, about the school's pursuit of its 10th NCAA championship or its first final four berth since 2008. Hopkins is already in playoff mode, as it seeks to make up huge chunks of lost ground in its quest for a 42nd consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

How are the Blue Jays facing such a must-win scenario against top-ranked and archrival Maryland on Saturday, as the Blue Jays' RPI (22) and quality win factor (45) continue to melt the ice under Hopkins' feet?

"They're playing hard. It's not like they don't have chances to win games," said a hoarse Pietramala. "I don't think we're that good, but I definitely don't think we're that bad. In the end, you have to make plays when it matters most. At times, we don't make intelligent plays at important moments."

Let's take a peek at the latest chapter from "It's Always Something," which could serve as the working title of this year's story at Homewood.

Look at everything the Blue Jays did well against the Great Danes. Hopkins outshot Albany 44-30, won the ground ball battle decisively 34-25, won 14 of 23 faceoffs behind the remarkable Mike Poppleton and committed only 10 turnovers.

The Blue Jays' defense, led by senior and first-team All-American Tucker Durkin, performed the unthinkable by shutting out Lyle Thompson, who came into the contest leading the nation with 6.9 points per game, yet took fewer shots (three) than the turnovers (five) he committed.

Yet, it's always something in 2013. The Blue Jays shot 9-for-44 (20.4 percent) against Albany, including a combined 10 percent by attackmen Zach Palmer and Brandon Benn and midfielder Ryan Brown, who went 2-for-20. Those three came into the game ranked second, third and fourth in team scoring.

The offense was aggressive enough in stretches, but paltry in the end. The Blue Jays made Albany freshman goalie Blaze Riorden (20 saves) look like Brian Dougherty on paper by spending much of the evening essentially playing catch with Riorden, who entered the game having saved just 48 percent of the shots he had faced. Hopkins also went 0-for-5 in extra man offense.

It's always something. The Blue Jays' defense was stout in six-on-six, but needed more of a cushion to work with in the fourth quarter. Albany exposed Hopkins' suspect transition defense — the same defense that allowed seven unsettled scores at North Carolina a week earlier in an overtime loss — with three, fast-break, fourth-quarter goals, including the game-winner by long-stick midfielder Doug Eich.

"We did the hard things pretty well tonight," Pietramala said. "But when we take 44 shots, we've got to make the goalie make more [great] saves. I hate when coaches use shooting as an excuse, but we're not winning when Palmer, Brown and Benn make two of 20. We go 0-for-5 in extra man? That's not us. But that was us tonight."

Hopkins has had its tough times in recent years, especially in high-pressure affairs. There were the NCAA tournament quarterfinal debacles in 2009, 2011 and 2012. The offense collapsed down the stretch last year twice against Maryland and at Navy. And there was the 7-8 finish in 2010, when a rebuilding team got thrashed by eventual national champion Duke in the tournament's first round.

"You can't hide from [it], but you can't play like you're worried about making the playoffs."

— Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala

This year was supposed to be different, and it has been in some strange, untimely ways. Unlike the fast-starting teams that faded dramatically in the previous two springs, the 2013 Jays have been a good, sometimes very good team that has failed the greatness test in compressed periods of time — usually crunch time.

In their 11-8 home loss to Princeton on March 1, Hopkins shot just 8-for-37, committed 15 turnovers and lost their poise late against the considerably younger Tigers. Hopkins was a rattled, 17-turnover mess at the Carrier Dome two weeks later, when it handed Syracuse much of its 13-8 victory.

A week later, Hopkins calmed down and drilled Virginia, 15-8. The Jays played fast and loose and at their cleanest level. They stayed clean with just nine turnovers in Chapel Hill, but shot just 10-for-48 and revealed enough cracks in their transition defense to take a painful loss. Then came the Great Danes, who may end up securing an at-large bid at the Blue Jays' expense, should Albany falter in the America East tournament.

This is how vexing the season has become for Hopkins. That blowout over Virginia now means very little, since the Cavaliers (5-6) are in the throes of an historic, five-game slide and could be headed for their first losing season in nine years.

Since then, Hopkins has lost a pair of one-goal games to ranked teams. The Jays worked all day to get a lead on Carolina, and couldn't hold it after committing a huge turnover with less than two minutes to go in regulation. Faceoff man R.G. Keenan then sent Hopkins home on the first play of OT. A week later, an untimely turnover led to the decisive, fast-break goal by Albany.

The Blue Jays don't have a work ethic problem and or an effort problem. But they have enough of a poise problem that their senior class looks like the second straight group that will fail to reach Memorial Day weekend — if they even get the chance. Maybe Hopkins is destined to be the latest sign that parity is here to stay in the sport.

All the Jays can do is throw everything they have at Maryland, and be in position to make a stop or shot when it counts the most. Otherwise, with no conference affiliation and only eight at-large NCAA tournament bids available, Hopkins could be headed for a distasteful sort of history.

"You can't hide from that," said Pietramala, contemplating a tournament miss. "But you can't play like you're worried about making the playoffs. You just worry about going down [to College Park] and playing your [butts] off, because [Maryland] is a great team."

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