PHILADELPHIA – An uncharacteristic game for the Virginia men’s lacrosse team came at the worst possible time.
In a back and forth game that never saw either team hold a lead greater than two goals, Notre Dame clipped Virginia 13-12 in overtime on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. With Brian Tevlin scoring just moments into the extra period, the Fighting Irish were able to do enough in the end to punch their ticket to the National Championship game on Monday against Duke.
“We were obviously hoping for the storybook ending to the careers, especially the fifth-year men,” Virginia coach Lars Tiffany said. “We have six of them who were here in 2019 in Philadelphia and won the National Championship, a team that found ways to always win in overtime, by obviously the closest of margins when you win five games in 2019 in overtime, and this year we lost both of our overtime games with a minuscule difference there. But as we all know, the huge range of emotions, the very different range of emotions being on the losing end.”
Notre Dame borrowed a page from UVA’s winning ways book on Saturday. The Irish secured an edge in groundballs, faceoffs, and shots on goal. That’s part of what made it an uncharacteristic day for the Cavaliers, who usually win those categories and who held a season-long advantage in all three.
Since Tiffany’s arrival from Brown, UVA has been dominant in ground balls year in and year out. Going into Saturday’s matchup, there was only one game this season in which the Cavaliers lost the ground ball battle, and that was the second game against Duke when the Blue Devils scooped up 37 ground balls compared to Virginia’s 34. The season-long tally saw the Hoos pick up more than 100 more ground balls than opponents, 674-570.
On Saturday, however, Virginia was dominated in the ground ball category. Notre Dame was able to secure 42, while UVA picked up a measly 30. In a close game that finishes in overtime, having 12 more ground balls can be a huge advantage for a team and a true difference maker.
Another area the Hoos struggled was at the faceoff X. Graduate student Petey LaSalla went just 12-28, something Virginia fans are not used to seeing from him. The Hoos won 54.2% of their faceoffs this season, but just 42.9% Saturday. What Notre Dame faceoff man Will Lynch did was a great job of not letting LaSalla win cleanly and forcing the wing players to get involved.
Senior defenseman Scott Bower, who usually works as a long-stick midfielder, went down with an injury in the first half. His presence was definitely missed on the wing, especially down the stretch of the game when Notre Dame won 6 of the last 9 faceoffs, granting the Irish key extra possessions and opportunities to come back. Virginia eventually moved defender Cole Kastner into the mix in Bower’s absence, a move the Hoos had not made previously this year.
“You’re right, we have grown accustomed to having an unfair advantage at the faceoff having Petey LaSalla for five years now, so you’ve got to give credit certainly to Lynch, No. 22, especially what he was able to do,” Tiffany said. “He was able to counter Petey and disrupt it and make it a 3-v-3 ground ball, and certainly we can all see the stats, Notre Dame earned a lot of extra possessions off the ground. … But yeah, when you get accustomed to the unfair advantage, it gets – you do feel it when it’s not going your way.”
Extra possessions translated into extra shots for Notre Dame, which had a 30-23 advantage with shots on goal in the game. Virginia produced a season-long advantage of 487-428 in shots on goal.
The Irish have two outstanding attackmen in the Kavanagh brothers, senior Pat and sophomore Chris. The Virginia close defense did a good job of keeping them quiet the majority of the game, holding them to 3 goals and 1 assists combined. That forced Notre Dame to generate its offense elsewhere.
While Virginia was able to limit the two stars, the defense struggled with the Irish midfield. The Notre Dame midfielders, specifically Eric Dobson (4 goals, 1 assist), Jack Simmons, (2 goals, 1 assist), and Tevlin (1 goal, 1 assist), created these long, sweeping dodges at the top of the box. They would get just a step on their defender, but oftentimes, the Virginia slide was late or didn’t come, allowing the Irish players time to load up their shots or survey the field for a pass.
That included critical goals late in the game and overtime that led to the winning rally.
“Overall our team defensive slide scheme did not have a great day,” said Tiffany. “Matt Nunes bailed us out multiple times in that first half and it felt like in the third quarter, as well.”
The play of Matthew Nunes is most definitely worth noting. The sophomore stood on his head all game, recording 17 saves in the overtime loss. His 17 saves brought him to a total of 213 on the season, setting a new UVA single-season saves record by surpassing Alex Rode’s 212 from the 2021 season.
“How many times did all of us see a Notre Dame shooter really close, and it looked like it was about to go in? Too close. And whoa, it didn’t go in. There’s Matt Nunes with another save,” Tiffany said. “I wouldn’t call it a great team defensive effort. It was pretty good, but Matt Nunes made us – he’s the one who kept that score down, in an era where the scoring is up.”
Another star for Virginia in the loss was Connor Shellenberger. It was evident why he has been given the nickname “Mr. May,” as the junior attackmen contributed 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) in the loss. Shellenberger finished the Hoos’ three NCAA Tournament games this month with 11 goals and 11 assists for a total of 22 points.
“Today he really found that perfect balance, I thought, because you can’t have him just be a feeder,” Tiffany said. “We all know he’s not selfish. We want him to be more selfish, and he said, I’m going to the goal, and a great cover guy on him, and against a great goalie, but Connor found a way to get those three goals.”
Despite the play of these Nunes and Shellenberger, as well as that of guys like Thomas McConvey (1 goal, 2 assists) and Patrick McIntosh (2 goals, 1 assist), the Cavaliers appeared to just be outplayed in the fourth quarter. Second half turnovers for Virginia (10 of its 15 in the game) combined with Notre Dame winning the faceoffs in the fourth quarter and overtime proved costly.
There was also a moment in the fourth quarter when Nunes made a stop with 3:35 left and the Cavaliers were up 11-9. If Virginia opted to hold the ball for the majority of the shot clock, it could have gotten the game clock down to under 2:30 before going to goal. Instead, the Hoos took a quick shot and Notre Dame got the ball right back. From there, the Irish used a timeout to cut it to one before a faceoff win and another timeout allowed them to tie it up. Tevlin then closed it out in OT.
For Virginia, that brought a disappointing end to what had been an incredible season. For guys like Xander Dickson, Jeff Conner, Grayson Sallade, and others, it also brought a close to their careers. Tiffany said the entire team should be extremely proud of what it accomplished this year even though it ended one step short of what UVA had hoped.
“No, you’re right, because if we define life based on National Championship or bust, that’s a bit daunting, isn’t it, when in the NBA only one out of 32 teams or in the NFL wins the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals. I hope the rest of the athletes and teams don’t look at the season as a failure,” Tiffany said. “It certainly does right now because we have these expectations and we’ve build this program to where it is, and the men who are next to me and in that locker room had a lot to do with that. But your question is a really poignant one because we want to make sure our men know that this season wasn’t a failure. It feels like a failure right now, temporarily, but man, we had a lot of fun this year. We scored a bunch of goals, broke the UVA record for assists, so we’re sharing it, we’re being unselfish, and we got to come back here. … I’m glad you brought it up because it’s something I’ll go reinforce with the men. As much as it hurts right now, this was a successful year.”