April 26, 2009

UMass to Make First NCAA Appearance Since '85

by Justin Feil | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Jackie Lyons' fifth goal, on a free position with 8.9 seconds left in the second overtime, vaulted top-seeded Massachusetts past St. Joseph's with a 15-14 win in the Atlantic-10 championship game -- and to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985. The Minutewomen had erased a 10-3 deficit.
© Thom Kendall Photography

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -  Jackie Lyons' free-position goal with 8.9 seconds left in the second overtime of the Atlantic-10 Tournament women's lacrosse championship ended a long drought for Massachusetts in a 15-14 comeback win over St. Joseph's on Sunday.

"I was missing a lot of my free position shots, so I was actually a little nervous," said the sophomore attacker, "but I adjusted and knew what I had to do because of that. I just thought about my seniors and all my teammates, and it made it easier for me to shoot and get a good shot off."

St. Joseph's was looking to make history in its first trip to the title game, but it was the Minutewomen, runners-up last year to Temple, that captured their first tournament title since 2000, and with it, their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1985.

"It feels great," said Lyons, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after scoring five goals and adding three assists Sunday. "This is what we've been working for all season and all year. This is the greatest feeling to come out here and get it as a team."

After Lyons' goal, Meghan Reddy won the ensuing draw control for a 12th time, then ran out the clock. Reddy and Stephanie Hopkins added three goals apiece for the Minutewomen, who improved to 11-7, their most wins since 11 in 2003.

"It's remarkable, amazing," said Reddy, one of three UMass seniors. "I've never won a championship before. Nothing. I've never won anything. This is my first time, and it feels awesome."

Winning the draw controls was the key for the Minutewomen, who held a 28-6 advantage in the game. Reddy's career-high tying 12 raised her career school-record total to 123.

"That killed us," said St. Joe's head coach Denise Roessler after her team finished its season 10-8. "If you're not going to win the draw, you're not going to win the game."

The Minutewomen, however, had to match their largest comeback of the season in the win when the Hawks took a 10-3 lead with 3:29 left in the first half. They trailed St. Bonaventure, 11-4, in the second half in their regular-season finale one week before and rallied to win, 14-13. Sunday, there was a familiar feeling.

"We knew we weren't going to give up," Reddy said. "We knew this was not going to be our last game together. We dug deep and came out on top."

UMass won the first 17 draw controls of 18 in the first half, but nine turnovers derailed their offense. St. Joe's connected on 11 of their 14 first-half shots before the UMass defense stiffened. Katie Florence made seven saves, three in overtime, for UMass.

"We put ourselves in a big hole in that first half," said UMass head coach Alexis Venechanos, whose team has now won nine of its last 10 games. "We just kept chipping away, chipping away, and kept getting the draws and we were converting more in the second half."

Jessica Westlake finished with four goals and an assist for the Hawks. The third seed, St. Joe's won an emotional semifinal over second-seeded Richmond, 11-10, Friday on a goal by Jen Peters with no time on the clock. They scored the final six goals of that game, but UMass turned the tables Sunday on the Hawks, who trailed for only a total of 5:45 in the title game.

"I don't know whether it was fatigue, or trying to keep your lead," Roessler said, "but we just didn't put the same performance we had in the first half in the second.

"To be in an overtime situation in a championship game, the nerves get to you. I'm sure that plays a big part in it. We'll be ready next year."

After UMass's Brittany Brigandi scored to tie the game 3-3, the Hawks scored the next seven goals with six different players for a 10-3 lead. The Minutewomen snapped a 15:05 scoring drought with three straight goals before Jessica Westlake gave St. Joe's an 11-6 halftime lead.

The teams traded goals to start the half before Westlake's fourth goal gave the Hawks a 13-8 lead with 21:11 left in the second half. UMass scored six of the next seven goals. Lyons spin move in transition knotted the score, 14-14, with 3:16 left and sent the game into overtime.

"Jackie Lyons showed she's one of the best attackers in the conference and even in the country," Venechanos said. "She put the ball in the back of the net with her will."

UMass had the only scoring chance of the first three-minute overtime period, but Suzy Herlihy stopped it for her sixth save. UMass got a pair of saves from Florence in the second overtime, including one of a free-position attempt. Her next one gave the ball back to the Minutewomen for Lyons' game-winner.

"Flo is the one that actually saves the game," Lyons said. "I had complete trust in her the whole time. Then we got the ball back with 30 seconds left, and I knew we just wanted to go to goal."

And with it, the Minutewomen will make their fifth trip the NCAA tournament. First-round action begins May 10.

Notes: Joining Most Outstanding Player Jackie Lyons of Massachusetts on the Atlantic-10 All-Tournament team are Meghan Cullinan, Suzy Herlihy, Jenna Martino, Abby Renninger, Helene Tursi and Jessica Westlake from St. Joseph's; Holly Drown, Merritt Cosgrove and Meghan Reddy of Massachusetts; Audrey Joy of George Washington; and, Sam Tajirian of Richmond.

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