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Virginia’s defense is peaking at exactly the right time

After a bit of a slow start to the season, the Hoos are clicking on the eve of the National Championship game.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship Photo by Larry French/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

With 20.9 seconds left on the clock in the NCAA semifinals, Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany called a timeout. The Cavaliers were trying to hold off a late rally from top-seeded North Carolina and had seen a five-goal halftime lead dwindle to just one. UNC had the ball after yet another turnover by the Hoos — their 22nd of the game — and the nation’s best offense was looking for the equalizing goal to force overtime.

“When I called time out with 20 seconds left, it was to say, all right, fellas. Let’s press out on their short sticks. Let’s make it difficult for them to run by our short sticks,” Tiffany said in the postgame press conference. “When we saw they gave 0 [Lance Tillman] the ball, we said, okay, Cole Kastner, here we go, and let you defend this one v. one.”

UNC got the ball to Chris Gray — the nation’s leading attackman and one of the five Tewaaraton finalists — and ran a pick play to try and get a favorable matchup. Rather than having defender Cade Saustad try and run through the pick and potentially give Gray an opening, short stick defensive midfielder (SSDM) Chris Merle switched onto the dangerous shooter.

Merle stayed in step with Gray and forced a bad pass into traffic that was batted down by Kastner. Time would run out before anyone could get the ground ball, and the Hoos were on their way to the title game for back-to-back seasons.

The last sequence was just one of many outstanding moments from Virginia’s defense on the afternoon as the Hoos held UNC to just 11 goals, five fewer than their season average. Merle and the SSDM group — namely Grayson Sallade, John Fox, and Jack Peele — were solid on Saturday, and they needed to be.

North Carolina has good offensive depth, and they like to attack short sticks both to create chances at the goal and to force slides that might open up finishers like Gray. All afternoon, the SSDMs made life difficult for the Tar Heel attack. Sallade led all Cavaliers with eight ground balls, was extremely active on the face off wings, and added two caused turnovers.

“Grayson Sallade, amazing the number of ground balls that Grayson picked up for us today, and I was so impressed with him,” Tiffany said of his defensive midfielder.

Virginia also held North Carolina to an 0-for-5 mark in extra man opportunities in the game. This includes three man-up chances for the Tar Heels in the fourth quarter, totaling two minute of advantage.

“Boy, our man down stepped up,” Tiffany stated emphatically. “We put in different men for that. Scott Bower, Jake Giulieri, and John Fox guide us there ... Alex Rode bailed us out on our second man down, where we left somebody wide open, but somebody took a shot, and Alex Rode made a huge save. From there, we got really better with our rotation, and we didn’t give up any open looks. We got fortunate.”

The Hoos have already faced the No. 21, No. 13, and No. 1 offenses in the postseason in wins over Georgetown, Bryant, and North Carolina, respectively. Against Maryland, Virginia will face No. 2 Maryland and the Tewaaraton favorite in Jared Bernhardt. The Terps average just shy of 16 goals per game, with Bernhardt leading the nation in both points (94) and goals (69). With this matchup against Bernhardt, Virginia’s defense will have taken on the top-3 goal scorers in the country through three rounds of play; Georgetown’s Jake Carraway and UNC’s Gray are Nos. 1-2.

Virginia’s defense got a slower start to the season, in part due to coronavirus limitations. Saustad, a key piece in Virginia’s 2019 title, has finally recovered fully from an injury sustained in the shortened 2020 season. First year Cole Kastner — dubbed “Project 39” by the coaching staff — has been a revelation as of late. Jared Conners is a First Team All-American and won the USILA Midfielder of the Year award as a long stick midfielder. Kyle Kology has been an unexpected stalwart for Virginia after walking-on before the 2018 season.

With Kology coming in at 6’4, Conners and Saustad at 6’5, and Kastner at a rangy 6’7, the Virginia defense has length unlike any other defensive unit (for comparison, the tallest Maryland starter is 6’3, the shortest is 5’8). “They are the longest defense we’ve played all year,” Georgetown head coach Kevin Warne said of Virginia’s defense. “I feel like I’m in Jurassic Park with a bunch of velociraptors running around in front of the goal. They’re long, they’re athletic, they get to your hands, and I thought they did a great job.”

Disrupting Maryland will be key to Virginia winning its first ever back-to-back NCAA titles, but that’s much easier said than done. Beyond Bernhardt, the Terps have four more players that have scored 40 points or more on the season. Logan Wisnauskas does a little bit of everything for Maryland with 36 goals and 30 assists.

The Terps average just over 40 shots per game, meaning when the defense inevitably gives up a look at cage, Virginia will need goalie Alex Rode to stay as hot as he’s been. In the postseason, Rode has 41 saves on 57 shots on goal, giving him a 72% save percentage. This isn’t a surprise, considering he was the Most Outstanding Player in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, but he is instrumental to Virginia’s success.

Virginia and Maryland will square off on Monday at 1pm, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.