- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

The seeds for Tillman Johnson's stellar junior season were planted during last year's national semifinals.

The Virginia goalie made 18 saves against Syracuse, including 13 after halftime and one with five seconds left in regulation. Though the Orangemen managed a 12-11 double-overtime victory, Johnson emerged with a better feeling about his play.

"It was an important game for us," Johnson said. "Although we didn't win, it just gave me the confidence I could play in big games in front of a lot of people."

And that confidence has carried over to this season. Now in his third year as a starter, Johnson has a .591 save percentage and a 7.88 goals-against average both career bests. Johnson is not just making flashy saves but is stopping almost all the routine shots as well for the fourth-ranked Cavaliers (7-2), who face No. 12 North Carolina in the ACC semifinals tonight at Klockner Stadium in Charlottesville.

"He's always been spectacular, but now he's more consistent," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "He's more fundamentally sound now. It may be that [Virginia midfielder] Chris Rotelli is the best player I've seen this year, but Tillman's been our MVP."

Johnson has been especially hot of late, recording five straight games with at least 10 saves. Over that stretch, Johnson has a .656 save percentage and a 6.60 GAA. If he keeps it up and the Virginia offense becomes a bit more consistent, the Cavaliers will be a daunting tournament foe both this weekend and in next month's NCAAs.

"We've had spurts where the offense has been great and defense has played well," Johnson said. "When we come together the way we can, we're going to be real dangerous."

Early starters

No. 5 Maryland (7-2) plays in the first semifinal tonight at 6 against No. 13 Duke (7-5), a rematch of last year's semifinal won by the Blue Devils. However, the Terrapins don't expect nearly the same adventure as last season, when bad weather and overtime forced the teams to play until almost midnight.

"You have more time to rest," Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. "Last year we were a victim of a lightning storm, we didn't play until 9:15 or 9:30 and didn't get done until midnight. Less can go wrong in the 6 p.m. game."

There are some other advantages to the early game. Players spend less time sitting around a hotel room, and the winner of the first game gets a chance to scout its title game opponent.

"When you play in the second game, you're coming with your team," Cottle said. "If you win [the early game], you watch the second game. If you lose, you get on the bus."

Hoyas to get tested

No. 3 Georgetown (8-0, 3-0 ECAC) begins the toughest stretch of its schedule today when it visits No. 6 Massachusetts (10-1, 2-1). Games against Rutgers, Maryland and Syracuse also remain.

However, playing five games over 15 days won't be the only difficult part of the next few weeks for Georgetown. With classes ending April 29 and finals beginning three days later, the Hoyas will have to contend with papers and exams while trying to prepare for Maryland and Syracuse in the final week of the regular season.

"We have only six days of class left," Georgetown coach Dave Urick said. "We have four days next week and then two days. The bigger concern is playing those five games and having our guys deal with the responsibility that comes at the end of the term. It snuck up on me and probably snuck up on them, too."

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