The Virginia men’s lacrosse team had already shown a knack for winning close games when early March rolled around this season. The Cavaliers, after all, had ticked off three straight overtime wins after a 1-2 start to the schedule by the time Notre Dame first traveled to Charlottesville this year.
Still something that afternoon created a different feeling for UVA coach Lars Tiffany as he watched his team. The Hoos trailed by five goals early in the third quarter against the Irish and while they had engineered those overtime comebacks before that day, the rally to a 13-11 victory seemed to forge a new strength that the team has ridden all the way to the Final Four in Philadelphia.
“If it was on the field, it would be the second half of Notre Dame the first time we played them,” Tiffany said. “We’re down 10-5 to Notre Dame and we’d had some wins before that, big overtime wins, but what I saw in that second half of Notre Dame then into the Johns Hopkins game and into the Richmond-Utah weekend. Something happened in that second half and that was the big turning point.”
The win against Notre Dame gave Virginia its fourth straight win at the time and the team has gone 14-2 after the 1-2 start to the year. Along the way, the Hoos have won six one-goal games with four victories in overtime. In other words, they’re comfortable with close contests no matter what the clock shows.
That certainly showed in last week’s win against Maryland to secure the program’s spot in the Final Four for the first time since 2011. Just like the March meeting with the Irish, the Cavaliers found themselves staring at a five-goal deficit. Unlike the ND game, however, there was much less time remaining – a full quarter less actually as UVA had just 10:38 to mount a charge.
Never mind that Maryland coach John Tillman had never lost with the Terps in the quarterfinal round with a perfect 7-0 record in that round before last week. No one blinked. In fact, Dox Aitken and others fired up the UVA sidelines almost defiantly with expectations of a win.
“We don’t over-react. We don’t get too down on ourselves,” Cavalier Matt Moore said. “My thought is we just need to get the ball. … We have so much experience in those late games with down three, down four.”
The lone blemish since UVA’s 1-2 start came against Duke on April 13, a 12-7 victory for the Blue Devils. That gave Duke its 10th straight win in the series; the Devils have won 18 of 19 against UVA.
Coincidentally, it’s Duke on the other end of the Final Four bracket this weekend in Philadelphia. So if the Hoos are going to play for the title on Monday, they’ll have to tick off another program reset box to get there. Since Tiffany arrived, Virginia stopped an 18-game conference skid and captured the program’s first ACC Tournament title since 2010 with a win against Notre Dame earlier this month.
“We’ve been trying to check off these boxes and it started when Coach got here,” Aitken said. “Get the ACC game off our plate, then win a regular season title, an ACC title, Final Four, and obviously win a National Championship. I think the only ACC team we haven’t beaten is Duke and we haven’t beaten them in some time. It’s pretty fitting that it’s in the semifinals and no bigger stage to try to beat those guys.”
The Cavaliers, despite their robust record down the stretch, will be a different team that Duke saw in Durham. Michael Kraus sat out that game with an injury and without a vital cog for the offense – he’s got 150 points over the past two seasons – it forced other players to handle larger roles. None more so than Moore. He slid into more of a quarterback initiator role at times in that game and emerged with 4 goals and 1 assist.
That’s made the offense potentially more difficult to defend. He rattled off a pair of huge assist games against UNC (6) and Robert Morris (7) in postseason play, for example, and that takes the pressure off of Kraus to create as many shots for others in certain situations. Plus, it makes Moore tricky to bottle up because he can score or dish.
Moore delivered the final blow against the Terps with a rocket shot off a pass from Kraus. That pushed him to the 40-40 plateau this season with 40 goals and 40 assists, which puts him in rare company in Virginia history. In fact, he’s a party of one as the only 40-40 Cavalier. He joined Doug Knight (86, 1996), Kraus (83, 2018), and Steele Stanwick (80, 2012) as the only Hoos to put up 80 points in a season.
That’s all been part of this team’s growth into a final weekend contender this season.
“I think just steady progress,” Moore said. “We hang out a lot together off the field. The more time we spend together, the more chemistry we build and more trust we build in each other. I think the Duke loss was helpful. We know we can’t bank on Mike because he wasn’t at that game and we can’t bank on one player to win a game. All that, it’s a team effort. You’re not going to beat an elite defense like Duke with one guy. You’re going to have to have five guys around you to put the ball in the back of the net. We learned a lot from the Duke loss.”
Among the biggest things Virginia learned from its lone loss outside of February is just how critical possessions are against Duke’s defense. The Blue Devils won the groundball category 39-30 in the first meeting and squeezed the Cavaliers out of offensive opportunities with long possessions if the Hoos shot too quickly. That helped fuel a defense that’s ranked No. 6 in goals allowed per game this season at 9.41.
Tiffany said that the Cavaliers went too fast too often in the first meeting and it resulted in a long afternoon. He said that things like groundballs and decision-making on offense will be critical against “one of best defenses in the nation” this weekend.
“Duke’s going to get back in the hole, take away our transition, and we can’t force transition if it’s not there,” Tiffany said. “That’s what we did the first game and all of the sudden we started playing a lot of defense, especially in the second half, and it just wore us down. They played a smarter game. So we’ve talked a lot about year three being the year of decision-making both off the field and on the field. This is going to be a big one – when to strike fast and when to say we’re going to try to use a lot of the 80-second clock.”
Either way, the Cavaliers are grateful for another chance to end the losing streak to Duke this season and to play in the Final Four. This is the first appearance in the Final Four for Virginia since winning the title in 2011. That’s a huge rebuilding effort from this group.
“Being where we are now, it’s definitely a big accomplishment but we know we have a lot more work to do this weekend,” Aitken said. “It’s just rewarding to bring this program back to where it belongs and it’s been one of the best blessings I’ve ever had.”