Virginia vs. Maryland Lacrosse: Previewing the Cavaliers' ACC Opener

Behind the quick hands of Maryland goalie Niko Amato, the Terps' defense is one of the most efficient in the country.

While the Cavaliers were busy beating up on top-ten opponents, though stumbling this past weekend to undefeated Johns Hopkins in overtime, the rest of ACC lacrosse has been busy beating up on each other, all sitting at 1-1 in the conference. Virginia finally opens up conference play this weekend by traveling to No. 9 Maryland in a game televised live by ESPNU. This week, we won't have to listen to Hopkins-homer Quint Kessenich call the game, and instead we'll be graced by former Virginia Tewaaraton Trophy winner Matt Ward.

Both teams are coming into the game after a one-point loss last week - Virginia to now-No.1 Johns Hopkins in overtime, and Maryland to No. 12 North Carolina. The Terps are 5-2 overall, with only one win over a ranked team, 10-7 over No. 8 Duke.

Maryland will be without junior midfielder Kevin Cooper, who took a late head shot on North Carolina's Greg McBride last week in the final minute of a two-goal game. When McBride retaliated by trying to tackle Cooper, a fight broke out on the field, resulting in both players' ejection from the game. Per NCAA rules, there is a mandatory one-game suspension following any expulsion foul. To Cooper's credit, he crushed the Carolina player (if you count throwing punches into a helmet). Video and more preview follow the jump.

Cooper has tallied three goals, six assists and six ground balls in seven games.

Virginia was not without their own drama last week against Hopkins, as sophomore midfielder Pat Harbeson had a huge hit that resulted in helmet-to-helmet contact and a one-minute unreleasable penalty. Kessenich, to no surprise, wanted an ejection, though in reviewing the video, it looked to me like the helmet contact was incidental - the ball had come loose and it looked like Harbeson checked the defender while both players were looking at the ball. See for yourself:

Virginia leads Maryland in almost all the statistical categories, including goals per game (13.0-11.9), shots per game (39.3-35.4),shots on goal per game (23.1-21.0), groundballs per game (36.9-33.9), turnovers per game (12.7-13.7) and face-off percentage (57.4-47.7).

Steele Stanwick, Colin Briggs, and the rest of Virginia's run-and-gun offense will be up against one of the country's top keepers in Niko Amato, a sophomore who started all 18 games last year for Maryland as a freshman. He had 12 saves and three groundballs in the first matchup between the two teams last year, a 12-7 victory over Virginia in the regular season, and eight saves in the 9-7 loss t Virginia in the championship game.

So far this year, Amato is tied for third in the country with a .615 save percentage, and fourth in the country giving up an average of just 6.62 goals a game. He also leads the team with 3.86 ground balls per game. This is done behind a notably young and rebuilding defense.

That young defense is one of the best in the country - though largely due to Amato's game in the crease. Maryland gives up goals on just 21.9% of their defensive possessions - only Notre Dame (20.1%) and Johns Hopkins (20.4) are more efficient defensively. Maryland, though, struggles in the fourth quarter, giving up goals on over 38% of their defensive possessions. The loss of Kevin Cooper for this weekend's game won't help their cause. Virginia is nowhere to be found in the top 10 of defensive efficiency.

Maryland holds a slim 45-42 edge in the series, though Virginia has won 10 of the last 12 contests. Faceoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on ESPNU.

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