What Led to Virginia's Stinging Loss to Notre Dame in NCAA Final Four
By Aidan Baller,2023-05-28
The Cavaliers led 11-9 with less than three minutes to go. In response, Notre Dame produced two goals in 31 seconds to tie the game with 2:07 left. After that, Conner Shellenberger found Thomas McConvey to retake the lead before Jake Taylor re-tied, sending the game to overtime.
In overtime, Will Lynch picked up the ground ball off the faceoff, leading to Brian Tevlin’s game-winner, ending Virginia’s season.
With the loss, the final members of the 2019 National Championship Game have played their last game as Cavaliers. The list includes Xander Dickson, Petey LaSalla, Cade Saustad, Grayson Sallade, and Jeff Conner. All five played critical roles for the Cavaliers and were crucial to Virginia even making it to Philadelphia.
Dickson leaves with the single-season goal record for Virginia with 61. LaSalla leaves after taking the most faceoffs in NCAA history with 1,781. Cade Saustad and Grayson Sallade played vital roles on the defensive side, and Jeff Conner proved to be indispensable on both sides of the field. All five have left a mark on this program as they all contributed to two national championships for the Cavaliers.
“Though we leave with a loss, this group has truly left the program better than what they found four or five years ago,” said UVA head coach Lars Tiffany about the players graduating who were a part of the 2019 and 2021 National Championships.
In two previous meetings with Notre Dame, Virginia won both games by a combined nine goals. So how did the Fighting Irish flip the script? Here's an analysis of what went wrong for the Cavaliers in their season-ending loss to Notre Dame in the Final Four:
Ground Balls Win Games
All year, Virginia has dominated the ground ball battle against teams. The Cavaliers came into the weekend ranked No.1 in the country in ground balls per game with 40.25 and have used those extra possessions to fuel their high-powered offense. Before Saturday, Virginia had won the ground ball battle in every game except one against Duke in April, where the Blue Devils had a 37-34 edge in ground balls. Duke ended up winning that game 15-14.
In Philadelphia, Notre Dame dominated the ground balls 42 to Virginia’s 30 en route to a 13-12 overtime victory . Getting outplayed and outhustled on the ground is disappointing for the Cavaliers, as that has been a statistic they have taken pride in all season and for the last several season under Lars Tiffany. There were numerous loose balls, yet in most cases, the Fighting Irish were picking up the ball when it mattered.
LaSalla Struggles at the Faceoff X
Petey LaSalla finished 12/28 from the faceoff x today, a disappointing way to end his legendary career at Virginia. In his previous two games against Notre Dame, LaSalla was a combined 31/53, 58.4%. The third time around, the faceoff committee of Will Lynch and Colin Hagstrom figured out LaSalla, propelling the Fighting Irish to victory.
"We have grown accustomed to having an unfair advantage at the faceoff, having Petey LaSalla for five years now," said Lars Tiffany. "So, you've got to give credit certainly to [Will] Lynch, No. 22, especially what he was able to do. He was able to counter Petey and disrupt it and make it a 3v3 ground ball"
Before the end of the first half, long-stick midfielder Scott Bower left the game due to injury. Bower has been a ground ball machine off of faceoffs all year, so losing him hurt the Cavaliers. Nevertheless, being beaten in a category they have dominated all year certainly hurt UVA's chances of defeating a team of Notre Dame’s caliber.
As usual, Tiffany was able to put graciously things in perspective with regards to Petey LaSalla's legacy at Virginia.
"We would not have won the National Championships in '19 and '21 without Petey LaSalla and I bring that up because I know right now, Petey - I just talked to him - he's disappointed in himself that he couldn't get those one or two more possessions late in the game to get us the ball, to get us the overtime faceoff and to get us a shot to win that game," Tiffany said. "But it's like, Petey, we're not going to define your [career] based on a couple faceoffs. You've already broken the NCAA faceoff attempts record and you've been incredible for us."
Untimely Defensive Lapses
On multiple occasions, Notre Dame had wide-open shots on Matthew Nunes, a testament to failed communication and missed slides. Notre Dame finished the game with 30 shots on goal. If it were not for Matthew Nunes, who made an impressive 17 saves, the Fighting Irish would have won the game comfortably.
Nunes made multiple point-blank saves to bail his defense out, but he could only do so much. In the final three minutes, the Cavaliers allowed three goals which allowed Notre Dame to force the game to overtime.
“I didn't do my job at the end as a defensive coach because when you're giving up goals that quickly, it's on me,” said Tiffany about the final three minutes of the game.
The Cavaliers also committed three penalties in the second half. Although Virginia was perfect on man-down defense, playing down a player drains everyone playing defense. Losing energy-killing penalties lead to players having less in the tank later in the game.
Virginia committed 15 turnovers, with only seven of them being caused by Notre Dame, and many of them proved costly. There were multiple occasions Virginia rushed in transition or forced passes, a reason why the Cavaliers only scored 12 goals in the game. UVA needed to be more patient in transition play and more meaningful with its passes. In a game where the Cavaliers were not winning many faceoffs, every possession mattered.
With the win for Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish will face off against Duke on Monday at 1 pm ET. Although the Cavaliers are losing many players, on the positive side, Connor Shellenberger is returning, and joining him will be the No. 1 recruit of the 2023 class, McCabe Millon. Goalie Matthew Nunes also returns as he looks to build his legacy at Virginia.
Despite losing many starters, the Cavaliers will be back next season and determined to bring Virginia men’s lacrosse its eighth National Championship.
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