- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On paper, Garett Ince’s faceoff performance against Duke in the regular season was strong, a 15-for-27 performance two weeks after taking over as a starter at Virginia.

In reality, the freshman frequently committed turnovers shortly after securing possession as the Cavaliers stumbled to a 19-9 loss.

Ince, however, has grown up in the last month and will be a vital figure when second-seeded Virginia (14-3) meets third-seeded Syracuse (14-2) in today’s NCAA tournament semifinals at Gillette Stadium.

“I think he’s always been good on the draw,” junior long pole Mike Timms said. “What he’s improved is handling pressure once he’s got the ball. That’s the big thing for us, having him step up and be able to handle the pressure and not be intimidated. Like any freshman, he was a little scared and turned the ball over when he probably shouldn’t have.”

The stakes are even greater in the first championship weekend contested in New England since the event went to a final four format in 1986. The Cavaliers squeaked out a pair of one-goal victories to reach their seventh final four in 10 years, and Ince overcame a sluggish start last week against Maryland to go 5-for-6 on faceoffs in the second half.

It will probably be difficult to enjoy a similar streak today. Syracuse’s Danny Brennan leads the nation with a .679 percentage and helped the Orange go 19-for-30 on faceoffs against Virginia in March.

Ince played sparingly that day, producing a 1-for-5 outing while sophomore Brian McDermott handled the bulk of the work. The arrangement continued for more than half the season until McDermott suffered an injury in practice in early April.

It created an opportunity for Ince, a Canadian who drew interest from Syracuse before ultimately choosing Virginia.

“To be honest, I was pretty excited,” Ince said. “I was a little bit scared. After you do it one game, you kind of get into a groove and all the sudden you’re playing college ball.”

It wasn’t an ideal situation for the Cavaliers, who remained entrenched in the top five throughout the season despite switching both faceoff men and goalies.

While goalie Bud Petit was a fifth-year senior and a known commodity in the program, Virginia coach Dom Starsia couldn’t be sure what he would get from Ince. Of course, he didn’t have much of a choice, either.

“If a single player had to be picked for our most improved player, it might be Garett Ince,” Starsia said. “I didn’t know if he’d better or not for this challenge, but he’s getting better and I think that’s had a lot to do with our late-season success.”

Ince’s sound play — his .532 percentage has lifted Virginia above break-even for the season — is aided by the sound play of the Cavaliers’ wings. Starsia has deployed two Hoover-like poles (Timms and Ken Clausen) at times in the last month, providing a groundball lift for the freshman.

But Ince matured as well, and both Starsia and Timms noticed a change in approach in the last month.

“He’s a tough kid, and he has shown that at times,” Timms said. “He didn’t show it too much early. He’s one of the fastest kids when he puts his mind to it and actually wants to run. He’s huge and real strong.”

His physicality could give him a chance against the equally bulky Brennan, who is coming off a 17-for-24 outing against well-regarded Notre Dame faceoff specialist Taylor Clagett.

“I’m curious what it’s going to be like,” Ince said. “I think one of the main things is I’m going to try to go a bit earlier and try to overpower him.”

And perhaps get Virginia back in the national final after a one-year hiatus in the process.

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