- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

TOWSON, Md. — Virginia finally solved Towson’s zone in overtime, and it may have saved its season in the process.

Sophomore Matt Ward scored 30 seconds into the extra period as the 17th-ranked Cavaliers squeaked past the No.19 Tigers 9-8 yesterday before 2,532 at Unitas Stadium, a much-needed victory for the defending national champs.

“It shows something in all honesty that we really haven’t shown, which is the will to win these close games,” Virginia defenseman Brett Hughes said. “We’ve been there every time, but this is great for everybody.”

Virginia (2-4) converted all four of its extra-man opportunities against Towson (1-3) to avoid its first five-game losing streak since 1966.

The Cavaliers scored the game-winner against a zone defense that had stifled them all day. Sophomore midfielder Kyle Dixon flipped a pass to the left wing to Ward, who zipped a shot into the small hole over the right shoulder of Reed Sothoron from 12 yards out.

The goal ended a slide that began with close losses to Air Force and Denver on back-to-back days last month. An 18-12 loss to Syracuse followed, and the woes were exacerbated by an 8-7 setback to Princeton.

“We’ve taken a little beating the last couple weeks, there’s no doubt about it,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “We needed to do something in a game that was meaningful. Even if we hadn’t won, I would have been proud of our performance in the second half, but we needed to win.”

That’s an understatement. Virginia was in danger of falling to 1-5 for much of the day, a position that would have left the Cavaliers’ postseason chances on life support just 10 months after winning a national championship. With Johns Hopkins, Maryland and North Carolina — three teams likely to be in the top-five of this week’s rankings — coming up in the next three weeks, the Cavaliers needed a victory over the Tigers to have a realistic chance to salvage their season.

“Coach has tried not to emphasize that, but the players definitely knew that 1-5 is a hole you almost can’t get out of, [while] 2-4 is a hole you can get out of,” said Ward, who leads the Cavaliers with 14 goals. “We looked at it as a win we had to get today.”

With so much at stake, Virginia was surprisingly listless in the first half. However, the Tigers committed 17 turnovers in the half and only led 5-2 at the break.

The Cavaliers were much stronger in the second half and benefited from foolish Towson penalties. Matt Poskay and Newton Gentry both scored on extra-man chances created by unnecessary roughness penalties to help the Cavaliers take a 7-6 lead into the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Virginia’s man-down defense continued its strong play, stopping the Tigers on all six of their extra-man chances.

Towson sandwiched goals around Ward’s man-up goal in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers went almost exclusively to a zone to stymie the Cavaliers’ offense for much of the final period. After Jack deVilliers efficiently won the opening faceoff of overtime, Starsia sent out his extra-man unit in anticipation of more zone.

That set up Ward’s game-winner, which spoiled Sothoron’s outstanding day. The junior, who was yanked in the second half of Towson’s 8-6 loss at Maryland on March13, made a career-best 18 saves.

Virginia’s Tillman Johnson was just a bit better. The senior stopped 15 shots, including a point-blank shot from Kyle Cunningham that would have given the Tigers the lead early in the fourth quarter.

“Holy moly,” Starsia said. “Tillman’s my guy, but the kid on the other end was terrific. I thought we had a bunch of good chances, but from my perspective, you just feel like ‘We’re not going to score. It’s not going to happen.’”

It turned out the Cavaliers finally did — and not a moment too soon for their postseason hopes.

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