PU men’s lax takes big step with Cornell win

Tigers move closer to automatic NCAA tourney bid

By: Bob Nuse
   Looking more and more like a team that will still be playing on Memorial Day weekend, the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team took control of the Ivy League race with a convincing 12-7 win over Cornell on Saturday at Class of 1952 Stadium.
   The Tigers, who have now won four in a row to improve to 6-4 overall and 3-1 in the Ivy League, can capture their eighth straight Ivy League crown by closing out the season with wins at Dartmouth and Brown the next two Saturdays.
   Also, the Ivy title would give the Tigers an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where they would have the opportunity to defend their national championship. It’s been quite a turn of events for a team that was 2-4 and nearly left for dead three weeks ago.
   "I know it’s a cliché, but with this team it really is the case that they respond and play their best when their backs are to the wall," said Princeton coach Bill Tierney, whose team has won its last three Ivy games by a combined score of 48-15 after opening the Ivy season with a loss to Yale. "Our backs have certainly been to the wall the last three weeks, not only in the Ivy League but also in terms of making it to the tournament.
   "The kids have really responded and come through these last four games. They’ve played great in the Ivy games and came through with the big win over Duke in overtime."
   Princeton certainly did not play well over the course of the first half on Saturday. The Tigers led, 4-3, at intermission but had been sloppy in gaining that one-goal lead. But in the third quarter the Tigers played, perhaps, their best quarter of the season and scored on five straight shots to increase their lead to 9-3 after three quarters.
   "This was a huge win for us," said Princeton goalie Julian Gould, who finished the game with 11 saves. "We would not have had a shot at winning the Ivy championships without winning this game. We know we still have two more games to win, and we’re taking them one game at a time.
   "Right now our focus has to be on Dartmouth. That’s the next game so that’s the biggest game. At this point we can’t think about anything but the next game. That’s how we have to look at it."
   An Ivy championship puts the Tigers into the NCAA tournament with an automatic bid and doesn’t leave their fate in the hands of the selection committee. As they have started to win again, the Tigers have started to climb back up the national rankings. They were eighth in last week’s poll and figure to move up after five of the seven teams ahead of them lost this weekend.
   "It’s all about reality, and the reality of the situation was we needed to win this game to keep our chances alive," Tierney said. "It wasn’t just a coach saying it or using it as a motivational tool. The reality is that there are only five at-large spots available for the tournament now with the automatic bids. And with three of those going to Syracuse, (Johns) Hopkins and Virginia, that makes it much tougher to rely on that route into the tournament.
   "So the kids are well aware that the best route for us right now is to get in by winning the Ivy League."
   With Duke winning the ACC tournament this weekend, another of those at-large spots figures to go to Maryland, which lost in the ACC semifinals on Friday. A loss to Cornell would have thrown the Tigers into a touchy situation in terms of making the tournament.
   "Just getting there is all that matters," Gould said. "Then we can start taking those games one at a time."
   For a five-minute stretch in the third quarter, Princeton certainly looked like a team that is capable of making it to the Final Four on Memorial Day weekend at Rutgers. In that short period of time goals by Dan Clarke, Greg Golaszewski, Sean Hartofolis, Hartofolis again, and Ryan Boyle broke open the game and gave the Tigers renewed life in their season.
   "At halftime I had told the kids that we had just played one of our worst halves of lacrosse and we were still up, 4-3," said Tierney, who picked up his 200th career coaching win on Saturday. "We certainly weren’t ahead from us doing anything very well. But then in the third quarter we got some fast break goals and won some faceoffs and did some things very well."
   The Princeton defense held Cornell to just one goal from the 3:50 remaining mark of the first quarter until 12:55 remained in the fourth quarter. In that time Princeton went from trailing, 2-1, to leading, 10-3.
   "Our defense has been playing real well," Gould said. "They make it so easy for me to relax and play with some confidence."
   At this point, the whole Princeton team should be playing with more confidence. Enough, in fact, to make a return trip to the Final Four anything but a long shot.