May 23, 2014

NCAA Notes: Notre Dame's Finishing Touch

by Gary Lambrecht | | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

John Scioscia has grown into a strong finisher for Notre Dame, complimenting Matt Kavanagh's playmaking ability. (Lee Weissman)

Notre Dame senior attackman John Scioscia will make sure of two things in Saturday's NCAA tournament semifinal showdown against no. 7 seed Maryland.

When the sixth-seeded Fighting Irish have the ball – and especially when sophomore Matt Kavanagh is carrying it – Scioscia will be ready for a pass at any time. And when he gets a chance to score, Scioscia will not get caught up in trying to out-smart Maryland senior goalie Niko Amato.

"He is one of those goalies that will get hot during a game, and you're going to be baffled by some stops he makes," Scioscia said of Amato, who earned first-team, All-America recognition for the first time this week. "He's not a huge guy [at 5-feet-8], but he throws himself at the ball with a lot of confidence. The more you think [about shooting against him], the less effective you're going to be."

Scioscia has enjoyed a breakout season, after barely playing during his first two seasons in South Bend and scoring 14 goals in a backup role in 2013. This year, he has started 11 of 16 games and has been a consistent finisher inside with 27 goals on 55.1 percent shooting. In two NCAA tournament starts, Scioscia has converted six of 10 shots in victories over Harvard and Albany to help the Irish reach their third Memorial Day weekend in five seasons.

But if Notre Dame is going to move one step closer to its first national championship, Scioscia expects sophomore sensation Matt Kavanagh (35g, 30a, both team-highs) will be the prime reason on offense. Kavanagh, who won the Albany game in overtime, earned second-team, All-America honors this week.

"We're battle-tested with a lot of firepower. It's been an honor playing with [Kavanagh]. He took the team on his shoulders against Albany. He has a little bit of the Thompsons in him," said Scioscia, whose team is averaging 12 goals.

"Matt is extremely aware, very slide-aware. Generally the slide is coming from me. Sometimes I'm not even open, and the ball still ends up in my stick. You've got to be ready whenever [Kavanagh] has the ball."

Familar Foes in Duke vs. Denver 

Denver coach Bill Tierney, whose fifth-seeded Pioneers will try to knock off top-seeded, defending NCAA champion Duke to advance to their first-ever title game, knows the Blue Devils well. The two schools have squared off in each of the past four, regular seasons. Denver (16-2) lost, 14-10, at Duke on February 15. Since then, the Pioneers have gone 15-1 and have won 13 straight.

As a defensive innovator who drew up masterful matchup zones and slide-and-recover packages while winning six NCAA crowns at Princeton, Tierney has enjoyed watching the Pioneers evolve during his fifth season in the Rockies.

Denver used to be primarily a team that would overwhelm opponents with its explosive offense. But the 2014 edition has become stout defensively, behind its two-goalie rotation of Jamie Faus and Ryan LaPlante. Denver has held 13 opponents to single-digit scoring and has allowed only 11 combined goals in impressive NCAA tournament wins over North Carolina and Drexel.

Not that Tierney thinks that means anything on Saturday – not against a Duke offense that regularly reaches at least 17 goals.

"You don't look at [Duke] and say if we can hold them to eight, we'll win. Scoreless [minutes] streaks is not something you think of with those guys. You have to outscore them," Tierney said. "If I walked into [offensive coordinator] Matt Brown's office and asked him to hold the ball [to shorten the game], I'd be out the fourth-story window."

Duke Depth Paying Off In Replacing Dionne

Duke coach John Danowski said it broke his heart to see senior attackman Josh Dionne go down with a serious right knee injury late in the first half of the Blue Devils' 19-11 rout of Johns Hopkins in the quarterfinals on Sunday. Dionne had scored four goals on four shots and was playing the best game of his career in Danowski's estimation.

In a testament to Duke's offensive versatility, junior Kyle Keenan (19 goals, nine assists) will shift from the second midfield back to his customary attack position. Keenan, who chipped in two goals and an assist against Hopkins, played a large role in the gold medal performance by Team USA's under-19 team in Finland two years ago.

"Adversity touches teams in different ways. This team has the challenge of overcoming two injuries," said Danowski, alluding to the loss of LSM Luke Duprey.

Raffa's Toughness Under Fire

Maryland coach John Tillman gave a big thumbs-up to faceoff star Charlie Raffa for his toughness. Raffa has been battling a sore knee for weeks. When asked if he would monitor Raffa's workload with an eye on possibly saving him for the national championship two days after a Notre Dame victory, Tillman said, "You have to put everything into winning that [Notre Dame] game."

When asked about preparing for a possible – and preferable – two-day turnaround after hopefully knocking off Maryland, Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said, "There is no Monday. There is only Saturday."

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