May 25, 2012

Epic Comeback Sends Syracuse to NCAA Final

by Matt DaSilva | | Twitter 

NCAA Division I Women's Lacrosse Semifinals

* Epic Comeback Sends Syracuse to NCAA Final | Illegal Stick Looms Large
* Northwestern Advances to Eighth Straight Final | Live Blog Replay 

STONY BROOK, N.Y.— Michelle Tumolo addressed the first hash to the right of the eight-meter arc with one second remaining in the first half with her stick in her left hand. When the whistle blew, she cocked her stick and sent a side-winding shot at the cage. It pinged off the pipe as the buzzer sounded, and Syracuse's players traipsed listlessly into the locker room down four goals.

It was that kind of half for Syracuse.

Whether it was the ping of a just-errant shot, the roar of the crowd after a Mikey Meagher save or the swish of a Shannon Gilroy blast hitting nothing but net on the opposite end, all sounds Friday pointed to Florida—until late in the second half.

That has been the Orange's sweet spot.

Syracuse erased a seven-goal second-half deficit, got renewed life in overtime when an apparent Gabi Wiegand goal with nine seconds left was waived due to an illegal stick and cemented an unlikely comeback when senior midfielder Sarah Holden scored with 2:02 left in double overtime to defeat Florida 14-13 in the NCAA Division I women's lacrosse semifinals at LaValle Stadium.

The fourth-seeded Orange (19-3) advanced to its first-ever NCAA championship game and will play Northwestern in the final Sunday at 8 p.m. Syracuse's semifinal heroics came on the heels of a quarterfinal in which it scored three goals in the final three minutes to beat North Carolina 17-16.

Syracuse senior midfielder Sarah Holden raises her arms in celebration after scoring the game-winning goal in double overtime to lift the Orange to a 14-13 win over Florida. Syracuse trailed by seven goals with less than 12 minutes remaining before rallying to force overtime.

© Lee Weissman

"We talked about believing," Orange head coach Gary Gait said of his halftime speech Friday. "We talked about believing that we can get this done, about doing this last week and that it can be done again. They believed it... It's always nice to have a reference point to prove what you're saying."

"We look in each others eyes, and we don't give up," said Tumolo, the junior attacker and Tewaaraton Award finalist.

Syracuse did everything it could to get an early edge on Florida, winning four of the game's first five draws and outshooting the Gators 10-2 in the game's first 15 minutes. But Meagher made eight of her 15 saves in that 15-minute span, Florida solved its woes in the center circle and Gilroy and Tewaaraton Award finalist Brittany Dashiell exposed the Orange's one glaring weakness – goalkeeping – to build a 7-3 halftime lead.

The Gators kept the momentum in the second half and led by seven after Dashiell scored left-handed off a split dodge to make it 12-5 with 17:16 remaining. The score stayed that way until Syracuse attacker Devon Collins finished a fast-break feed from midfielder Linley Block with 11:39 remaining to close within 12-6. The Orange appeared to feed off the previous defensive possession in which it drew a charge on Florida attacker Kitty Cullen.

Subsequent goals by Tumolo and Alyssa Murray made it 12-8. After Gilroy's fifth goal of the game put the Gators back up by five with 7:20 remaining, Syracuse started its run in earnest. With Tumolo and Murray being relatively contained to that point, Holden and freshman draw specialist Kailah Kempney provided the spark.

Holden scored the first of her four goals with 6:28 left to pull the Orange within 13-9. Kempney won the ensuing possession, which ended in a free position goal from Murray a little over a minute later to make it 13-10.

Dashiell earned the next draw control for Florida, and Syracuse defender Janelle Stegeland got a yellow card with 4:06 left to give the Gators a player advantage. But instead of stalling for two minutes with the extra player, Gilroy went to the goal and was stuffed by Orange goalkeeper Kelsey Richardson, who replaced starter Alyssa Costantino in the second half.

"I didn't hear that we were in 'red,'" Gilroy said of Florida's stall call. "I saw an opening and, unfortunately, I couldn't get it in the back of the net."

It proved costly for the Gators, as Syracuse scored three goals in the final three minutes to tie the game at 13. Holden converted a crease feed from Murray at 2:49, Tumolo fed Murray off a double team for a goal 29 seconds later and – after Meagher turned the ball over at midfield on a clear following a save and Florida drew two yellow cards — Holden converted a free position with 30 seconds remaining to tie it.

"We needed to just be smarter," said Gators head coach Mandee O'Leary.

After yet another Kempney draw control, Syracuse had a chance to win it on a Tumolo free position with 15 seconds left. But Meagher made the save to force overtime.

Both teams turned the ball over in the first of two three-minute overtime sessions. Tumolo got the only shot off. It sailed wide as time expired.

Florida won the draw to open the second session, with freshman midfielder Nora Barry nabbing a tough ground ball in traffic. The Gators held possession for a final shot, which they got when Wiegand was fouled with 12 seconds remaining. Wiegand beat Richardson on a free position shot on the second hash from the right with nine seconds left.

But as Florida's players celebrated, Murray sprinted to the nearest official to request a stick check. Wiegand's stick was ruled illegal, the goal was waived and Syracuse was back from the dead—again.

"Sometimes it takes a little bit of divine intervention," Orange head coach Gary Gait said, "a little luck."

Said Murray: "You're fighting for our life. I felt like it was something I had to do."

Gait said Florida similarly called for a stick check when Syracuse scored to clinch a 12-11 double-overtime regular season victory over the Gators on March 3.

"It's a part of the game," O'Leary said.

On the opening draw of double overtime, Kempney whipped the ball behind her and tracked it down to set up a Syracuse timeout and possession. Then with 2:02 left, Holden faked inside, split-dodged to her right hand to get a step on Florida defender Sam Farrell and sent a bounce shot past Meagher for the game-winning, sudden-victory goal.

A brief silence ensued as officials examined Holden's stick. They signaled it was good, and the party was on. Syracuse was headed to the NCAA championship game after completing the second-largest comeback in tournament history. (Virginia overcame a nine-goal deficit to beat Duke in the 2007 semifinals.)

Gilroy led all players with five goals and Dashiell added four for Florida, which advanced to the NCAA semifinals in just its third season as a varsity program. Gilroy, a Long Island product out of Northport High, added six draw controls in her homecoming.

Holden's four goals paced Syracuse, with Tumolo and Murray adding three goals apiece. Kempney finished with seven draw controls.

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