May 7, 2014

NCAA WD1 Tournament: Storylines To Watch 

By Laurel Pfahler | | Twitter

Can the Florida Gators keep their momentum going to make one more Final Four appearance? (Matt Dunn)

With the NCAA Division I women's lacrosse tournament set to begin Friday, there are plenty of good stories to follow.

Top-seeded Maryland goes for its first national championship since 2010, No. 2 Syracuse tries for its first title in program history and third-seeded North Carolina, which lost three of its last five games, seeks to bounce back and defend its 2013 crown.

But here are a few more interesting storylines to watch:

1. Will Florida's ALC championship provide the momentum it needs for a return to the Final Four?

The Gators won their second ALC championship in the program's five-year history Sunday, rallying from a five-goal halftime deficit to beat Northwestern 9-8. The last time they won their conference championship was in 2012 – and it led to their first and only Final Four appearance.

Now, Florida (17-2) is the fourth seed in the NCAA tournament, awaiting the winner of a first-round matchup between Denver and Jacksonville for a Sweet 16 game set to take place Sunday.

Gators coach Mandee O'Leary said winning the conference championship should be a boost for her team, which entered the ALC tournament having not played a game since April 19.

"It's a great momentum builder -- your team goes in with confidence," O'Leary said. "Coming into that tournament, anyone could have won it. You had some of the top teams in the country competing and it was anyone's game. Northwestern, Penn State, Johns Hopkins, Ohio State – it was anyone's tournament, so for us to come away with that win was huge."

Florida, whose only losses were to North Carolina and Syracuse – had edged Northwestern 13-12 in its regular-season finale, holding off a late rally by the Wildcats.

This time, it took a successful comeback on the Gators' part to get the win. Mary-Sean Wilcox came up with a big save late in the game, and they were able to stall for about two minutes before Nora Barry's game-winning shot with 32 seconds left. Florida, which hadn't led until that point, outscored Northwestern 7-1 in the second half.

With the way the pairings shaped up, the two teams could meet again. They are both in the same quarter of the bracket, which turns out to be a mini ALC tournament.

Northwestern awaits the winner of a matchup between Louisville and Ohio State and would play Florida in the Elite 8 if both teams win their first game.

"I'd be excited to make it to the next round -- I wouldn't care who we'd be playing," said O'Leary, whose freshman- and sophomore-heavy lineup is led by junior Shannon Gilroy and lone senior starter Krista Grabher. "If we could both get to that next round it would be an exciting matchup. Every time we play Northwestern, it's kind of a chess match. They have one of the best coaching staffs in the country. Anyone that plays them better bring their 'A' game, and their players execute their game plan day in and day out, so it's fun program to compete against."

As far as the ALC-heavy section of the bracket, O'Leary said she hardly had a chance to look at it. As the pairings were being announced, the Gators were making their descent on their flight back from Evanston, Ill., and the Wi-Fi access cut off just as Jacksonville's name came up on the screen.

"I just think it's great so many teams from the ALC got in," O'Leary said. "It speaks to the level of competition in our conference. The bracket is the bracket. We're going to go where we go and play who we play, and hopefully it works out for us in the end."

2. Virginia's late-season success paid off in the form of a first-round bye, but will it help the Cavaliers to a deep postseason run?

Coach Julie Myers said she is well aware that some are unhappy with her 10-8 team picking up the sixth seed and last first-round bye. But the Cavs weren't surprised with the selection committee's decision and will take what they get.

Virginia won five of its last six regular-season games, including wins over Notre Dame and Boston College, and then avenged a loss to Duke by beating the Blue Devils in the first round of the ACC tournament. The only losses down the stretch were five- and six-goal losses to Maryland.

The Cavs also didn't have a "bad" loss, as Myers pointed out. The teams that beat them were all ranked opponents – Northwestern, Loyola (Md.), Syracuse, Princeton, North Carolina, Duke and Maryland.

"The final six games always have been a big piece of (the selection criteria), but you never know," Myers said. "The greatest thing was we didn't have an unranked loss. Others had hiccups. Coming up with 10 wins in our schedule was adequate. Of course, we hoped to do better, but when Princeton and Duke are your weakest losses, you have to be pleased because those are great teams. I imagine that was one thing that separated us from others, plus beating Notre Dame and Boston College late in the season really helped.

"I hear people aren't happy but we're going to take it. Few people are ever happy with the bracket. I'm just happy with where we are."

Myers said the key to her team's late-season success had to do with some personnel changes, better decision-making and just simplifying what the Cavs were trying to do.

"They are making more big-picture decisions and executing better so they are rewarded for making better decisions," Myers said. "Hopefully our best lacrosse is still ahead, but I like how we are moving the ball and how we are able to use our strengths more than at the beginning of the season."

Virginia will have to dig back to the first half of the season to help in its preparations for its Sweet 16 matchup against Penn State or Princeton. The Cavs beat Penn State 12-11 on March 1 and lost 15-13 to Princeton on March 15.

The Cavs, who were 11-10 last year, are looking for their second straight quarterfinal appearance after previously not having advanced past the second round since a runner-up finish in 2007.

"There are no easy games in the tournament, even though it expanded to 26 teams," Myers said. "It's all great matchups. We played Penn State and Princeton so early, we have a completely different lineup and different mindset now. I'm excited to play either one of them again. Both are talented teams and both are coming with a lot of fire to Charlottesville. I'm just glad we will be watching from the stands Friday, but we're excited to play whoever we play Sunday."

3. Can Stony Brook repeat, maybe even surpass, its 2013 performance?

Stony Brook finds itself back in a familiar spot as it prepares to face Towson in the first round Friday at Syracuse.

The America East champion Seawolves beat Towson 8-6 in the first round last year in their first ever tournament appearance since the program's Division I debut in 2003. The magic on a historical 17-win season ran out in the second round against Maryland, an 11-3 loss, but Stony Brook (16-3) could be in a better spot this time, despite losing a heralded seven-player class of 2013 to graduation.

"Last year was uncharted territory for us," coach Joe Spallina said. "This year, it's something some of the kids have experienced, so that can't hurt. Them knowing what kind of atmosphere they are going into, the buzz of the crowd, it's important for our kids to go in with some comfort in that. ... Even the new kids have played in big games this season, so I feel good about them being able to transition into the new season with NCAAs."

Towson (11-7), the Colonial Athletic Association champs, enters the game having won nine of its last 12 games after losing four straight as part of a 2-4 start to the season. The Tigers finished 10-9 last year.

Stony Brook has won 12 of its last 13 games – with an unexpected slipup against Vermont – and its only other losses were to Florida and Notre Dame (by one goal). The Seawolves beat Albany 7-1 on Sunday for their second straight America East title.

"We've had a nice season," Spallina said. "We're young. There are some games we haven't played to our potential, but I feel good about how we played this past weekend (in the conference tournament), and we've got good momentum."

Although Stony Brook has a little more confidence going into this tournament, compared to last year, Spallina said Towson will be a challenge.

"They are a great program," Spallina said. "They have a great coach, tough kids. We've had some good battles with CAA schools this year, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I'm not sure there's much you can take year to year from past games except overall style. They were a tough, disciplined group, and we are going to have to play well defensively. They are going to be deliberate in their attack, and we have to be opportunistic on both ends."

Should the Seawolves repeat their 2013 performance, a matchup with Syracuse awaits them. Albany, who Stony Brook beat twice this year, came within two goals of the Orange – a game Spallina watched to scout the Great Danes.

"Syracuse is a tremendous team," Spallina said. "They have a great program, and every year they're in the Final Four it seems. That's been a bench mark for a lot of programs, but we have to take it one game at a time. We're focused on Towson, and if that goes well, we will look forward to a chance to play Syracuse."

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