May 18, 2014

Denver Downs Drexel, Heads Back to Final Four

by Matt DaSilva | | Twitter | Live Blog Replay | May Madness

Erik Adamson tied his career high with six goals Sunday in Denver's 15-6 victory over Drexel in the NCAA quarterfinals at Delaware. The fifth-seeded Pioneers will play top-seeded Duke in the first semifinal Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. (Kevin P. Tucker)

NEWARK, Del. – It was a big deal when Denver first went to the final four. But now that the Pioneers are headed back there for the third time in four years, their 15-6 victory Sunday over Drexel had a been-there, done-that vibe about it.

In a sign of the sport's shifting landscape, Denver has become the model for mid-major college lacrosse teams like Drexel. The Pioneers' rise to national prominence coincided with a commitment to the Canadian-American hybrid approach the Dragons have emulated, but could not overcome Sunday.

Fifth-seeded Denver put on a clinic at Delaware Stadium, using a 10-0 run over a 24-minute span to dismiss any notion of an upset after Drexel jumped out to an early lead. The Pioneers (16-2) will play top-seeded Duke in the first NCAA semifinal Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Sixth-seeded Notre Dame and seventh-seeded Maryland will meet in the second semifinal.

After the final whistle, Denver's players did not jump into a celebratory heap or send their sticks streaming into the sky. Instead, they jogged gingerly to the 40-yard line, where the team convened around a defense that gave up just four even-strength goals against one of the nation's most dangerous offenses.

"A lot of guys have been here before," senior midfielder Jeremy Noble said. "This isn't the trophy we're after."

Despite a perceived disadvantage on faceoffs, Denver sophomore Chris Hampton won seven of eight in the first quarter, including three on violations that landed Drexel junior Nick Saputo in the penalty box. The Pioneers went 3-for-3 on extra-man opportunities to go up 5-3 at the end of the first quarter, and then blanked the Dragons in the second quarter by expertly milking possessions that yielded high-percentage shots.

"That second quarter was probably the best quarter we played all year," Denver coach Bill Tierney said.

Saputo, praised widely last week for jumpstarting Drexel's 16-11 upset of fourth-seeded Penn in the Dragons' first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, never found a rhythm Sunday against Hampton. Saputo entered the game as one of the nation's top faceoff men at 63.8 percent, while Hampton has hovered around 50 percent for most of the season. But Hampton hoarded possessions and finished 16-for-23.

Denver made the most of those chances. Junior midfielder Erik Adamson tied a career high with six goals, Noble had four assists and eight different players scored during a masterful shooting performance by the Pioneers. Denver converted on 15 of 32 shots, including 10 of 17 in the first half.

Pioneers senior goalie Jamie Faus made eight saves in the second half to keep Drexel out of striking distance. Denver's defense — a previously unheralded unit anchored by close defensemen Christian Burgdorf, a freshman, and juniors Carson Cannon and Teddy MacKenzie — has held its last nine opponents to nine goals or fewer.

"It's overall a pretty young group. They've just managed to develop," Tierney said. "We're starting to see a lot of the same stuff over and over again, so you do get used to that."

Senior midfielder Ben McIntosh, one of six Canadians on the Drexel roster, and senior attackman Nick Trizano scored two goals apiece for the Dragons, who also got three assists from junior midfielder Ryan Belka.

"There's a lot of good lacrosse players. Some happen to be north of the border and speak a little funny," said Drexel coach Brian Voelker, who was Tierney's assistant at Princeton when the Tigers won the NCAA championship in 1992 and has admired his former mentor's work in the West. "[Denver] is a program that's ahead of us right now. We're trying to be the best team in our conference, the best team in the CAA. We want to be here every year."

The Dragons advanced to their first NCAA tournament with an 11-10 triple-overtime win against Hofstra — coached by Tierney's nephew, Seth Tierney — in the CAA championship game.

"We took the program to somewhere it's never been," McIntosh said. "To an extent, you've got to be proud, but it's always disappointing when it's your last game."

Notes and Quotes

Both NCAA semifinals will be rematches of regular-season encounters. Denver lost to Duke 14-11 on Feb. 15. Asked of his early thoughts on how to contain a Blue Devils offense that has put up at least 15 goals in their last 10 games, Tierney joked, "We'll see if we can get eight guys on the field all at the same time." Regarding Duke's 19-11 NCAA quarterfinal win over Johns Hopkins, he added, "In the past, it's been about their attack. This year, everybody's talking about their midfield. Today, they were both. That's a scary thought..." Voelker attributed Saputo's subpar faceoff performance at least partially to slower whistles from the officials. "Faceoffs were called differently today," he said. "I think I missed the memo. Guys were going down and staying there for ages." 

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