The Virginia Cavaliers hit the road this evening in NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament action as the Hoos will face No. 6 Loyola in Baltimore. In 38 postseason appearances by the Hoos, this is just the second time Virginia has been unseeded in the NCAA tournament.
This isn’t the first time the Greyhounds and Hoos have met this season, with Virginia taking a thrilling double overtime win in Charlottesville to kick off their schedule. First year Ian Laviano had five goals in the game, and midfielder Dox Aitken scored his only goal of the game in the second overtime period to decide the game.
Check out the full highlights here:
If the Hoos want to repeat that outcome and make the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time since 2012, there are several keys to the game:
(Attempt to) Contain Pat Spencer
Pat Spencer is one of the five finalists for the 2018 Tewaaraton Award, and rightfully so. He’s a dangerous goal scorer with 28 on the season, but more dangerous as a set-up man with 55 assists. His vision is impeccable and he is able to easily find teammates when double teamed.
As you can see here, he’s light of foot, but will always keep his head up looking for the next (and best) pass:
Virginia shut off Spencer in the second quarter of that game, using senior defender Scott Hooper to try and prevent Spencer from contributing. The Greyhounds didn’t get any points from Spencer, but they found scoring in other ways (primarily transition) that allowed Loyola to build an 7-3 lead at the half.
In the second half, Coach Tiffany returned to their regular team defense, conceding possible scores from Spencer, but not messing with the flow of the defense as a whole. It will be interesting to see what tactic Tiffany goes with tonight as the defense has improved since that first game of the year.
Don’t Fall Behind Early
Seems odd to say about a team like Virginia that likes to run-and-gun, but the Hoos need to score early (and preferably often). Far too many times this season Virginia has created an early deficit for themselves, then put extra pressure on the offense. This extra pressure generally leads to one-and-done possessions or avoidable turnovers.
Additionally, the Hoos could be without superstar attackman Michael Kraus (43 goals, 37 assists) thanks to a head injury sustained against Notre Dame. Coach Tiffany said as late as Tuesday that he was still “day-to-day” and hadn’t practiced. This means Virginia could be operating on attack without both their leading goal scorer and assist man. There’s undoubtedly talent on the attack that the Hoos can use, but guys like Ian Laviano, Dox Aitken, Mikey Herring, and Mike D’Amario will have to step up if he’s out.
As mentioned above, Virginia needed a dramatic third quarter comeback the last two time the teams met, scoring five straight goals to even the score after Loyola made it 8-3. The Hoos would push the streak to seven straight and take a 10-8 lead and eventually would lead 12-9 before Loyola made a push of their own.
The Hoos are susceptible to runs as much as they are likely to go on a run, so it’s key not to let momentum swing too much in Loyola’s direction. Last time they met, Loyola’s face off man Mike Orefice had three goals, nearly matching his output for the remainder of the season (four goals). Limiting transition is crucial for a Virginia win.
Win the Possession Battle
You know what they say: possession, possession, possession. Ok, maybe they don’t say that, but they should. Winning the possession battle for the Hoos is a three-headed monster. Virginia needs to win face offs, get saves, and not turn the ball over.
As far as face offs, Virginia’s Justin Schwenk has been outstanding this season. He’s set a new UVA record with face off wins in a season (229 and counting) and is winning 60.1% of his attempts this year. In the first matchup with Loyola, Schwenk won 16-of-26 (61.5%) as the Hoos won 18-of-29 in the game. Orefice took all but one of the face offs in the first matchup, but Bailey Savio has taken more over the course of the season, going 91-of-203 (44.8%). The Hoos should hold the advantage here.
In goal, Virginia actually started Griffin Thompson in cage to open the season. He was outstanding, finishing with 15 saves including six in the crucial third quarter. Over the course of the season, however, highly rated first year goalie Alex Rode has moved into the starting position. He was outstanding against Syracuse in the ACC tournament, but struggled against hot-shooting Notre Dame in the championship game. Realistically, either one could start tonight. Limiting Loyola is crucial (duh), as is the ability to turn a save into a fast break opportunity.
Lastly, turnovers. Virginia is averaging 15 per game, but Loyola averages 12 of their own. The high-octane pace that Coach Tiffany employs lends itself to a higher turnover count, but the Hoos can’t afford to have a 25 turnover game like they did against Notre Dame. The Hoos had 18 turnovers the last time out against Loyola, but only two after half time.
Virginia and Loyola face off on ESPNU at 7:15pm. The winner will move on to face No. 3 seed Yale in the quarterfinals at Hofstra University next weekend.