- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

BALTIMORE — If a hot goalie can win a team a national championship, then Virginia could easily be raising another NCAA men’s lacrosse trophy tomorrow afternoon.

Tillman Johnson matched a career-high with 18 saves and Matt Ward scored four goals as the second-seeded Cavaliers ripped third-seeded Maryland 14-4 in the NCAA tournament semifinals yesterday on a rain-soaked field before a record crowd of 37,823 at M&T; Bank Stadium.

Virginia (14-2) set a school record for victories in a season and will face top-seeded Johns Hopkins (14-1) in tomorrow’s 11 a.m. title game. The Cavaliers, who hadn’t reached the final since winning the 1999 crown, lost 8-7 in the teams’ March 22 meeting in Baltimore.

“I just wanted to stay relaxed and composed and play my game,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to let the crowd and the whole tournament overwhelm me.”

Johnson now has a .632 save percentage for the season, but in the three NCAA tournament games he’s been much better. Johnson has a .771 save percentage and a microscopic 4.51 goals against average in the Cavaliers’ tournament run.

“I would have told you before this that he’s the best goalie I’ve ever coached, but I’ve never been around a goalie that’s put together a string of games like this,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said.

The Terrapins (12-4) had the lowest output in a semifinal in the tournament’s 33-year history and suffered their worst defeat since a 13-3 loss to Johns Hopkins in 1999.

It also was a shaky day for the Maryland defense, which allowed 10 goals only once this season. Michael Howley shut down Virginia attackman John Christmas and Cavaliers midfielder Chris Rotelli was held scoreless, but Ward and other less heralded members of the Virginia offense came through with critical goals.

Ward, a freshman, was matched up against defenseman Lee Zink, who had shut out the leading scorer of the Terps’ last four opponents. However, the elusive 5-foot-10 Ward blew past the 6-4 Zink a few times to boost the Virginia offense.

“I’ve always been a player who likes the mud,” Ward said of the slick field. “I have a low center of gravity and I have short, choppy steps. He’s a tall guy with a longer stride and I tried to take advantage of rolling and trying to stay up and he’d probably slip and that happened a couple of times.”

Still, Virginia’s most valuable asset was Johnson. The junior made three quick saves to start the game and provided a spark for the Cavaliers, who then scored the first two goals.

“Clearly, those kind of saves lift a whole team,” Starsia said. “There’s nothing that does more for you than playing in front of somebody who’s stopping the ball and making that kind of effort. I think subtly it wore on Maryland a little bit. I think they looked like they were cutting it a little too fine on offense.”

Indeed, Maryland seemed a bit tentative at the offensive end. The Terps took 21 shots in the first half, but were stuffed at nearly every turn by Johnson. Maryland’s only goals of the half came from a defensive midfielder in transition (Joe Parker) and a second line midfielder (Sean Leary).

Johnson’s play proved a bit deflating for the Terps, who were forced to spend much of the second half in their defensive end after getting flustered on offense for the first 30 minutes.

“It’s pretty frustrating on defense because when he makes a big save like that, the ball comes back to our defensive end and we have to play again,” Howley said. “Usually when you score a goal on offense you get a little momentum going and that just didn’t happen today.”

Virginia quickly expanded on its 5-2 halftime lead, as Ward had a wraparound goal and Matt Poskay scored from 15 yards out less than three minutes into the third quarter. Maryland midfielder Mike Mollot scored to make it 7-4, but sophomore Joe Yevoli (five points) added two goals at the end of the quarter to put it out of reach.

“We weren’t scoring a whole lot in bunches,” Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. “When it got to the end of the third quarter, we needed to get a couple goals in a row and we just couldn’t put it together.”

Notes — The previous semifinal attendance record was 30,580, set in 1997 at Maryland … Virginia beat Maryland for the first time in four tries in the NCAA tournament … Johnson also had 18 saves in last year’s semifinals against Syracuse and in this year’s ACC semifinals against North Carolina … Virginia avenged an 8-7 loss to the Terps on March 29 … Virginia is 14-0 when scoring at least 10 goals.

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