- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

BALTIMORE — Navy’s national title hopes nearly turned into a pipe dream in yesterday’s NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament semifinals.

Moments after Navy midfielder Graham Gill clanked an open net shot off the pipe, goalie Matt Russell and the Midshipmen’s defense stuffed a final shot to help Navy hang on for an 8-7 victory over Princeton before a record 46,923 at M&T; Bank Stadium.

The Mids (15-2) advanced to the title game for the first time since 1975 and will meet fourth-seeded Syracuse tomorrow.

Chris Pieczonka won 15 of 19 faceoffs for the Mids, who accomplished something few have done in the last 15 years — beat a Bill Tierney-coached team in a tight game in the playoffs.

“There was a chess game going on,” Navy coach Richie Meade said. “[Tierney] did a great job all day changing defenses. I think [our offensive coordinator] John Tillman did a great job as he has all year of preparing the offense. It’s not easy playing Princeton. They make you think a lot, and we did a good job of handling that.”

Princeton (11-4), which got a goal and four assists from Ryan Boyle, lost an NCAA tournament game to a school other than Syracuse for the first time since a setback to Towson State in the 1991 quarterfinals.

Navy held a one-goal lead after a Princeton turnover with 2:29 left, but the Mids’ final possession was adventuresome. Meade used a timeout with 2:07 left after the Mids cleared, then used another with 47 seconds left with attackman Jon Birsner under pressure.

After Princeton sent goalie Dave Law out of the crease to force a turnover, Gill found himself with an open look at the cage. His shot caromed off the right pipe, Princeton covered and immediately used a timeout.

“[Senior midfielder] Ben Bailey came up to me after the game and said we’re going to remember the last 30 seconds of that game for the rest of our lives,” Gill said. “I’m not going to forget seeing the ball go off the pipe. … Hitting the pipe, my stomach just dropped.”

Princeton needed 12 seconds to clear and then used another timeout, but Russell stifled freshman Peter Trombino’s last-ditch effort with six seconds left to secure the victory.

“When I’m making saves, I’m not really thinking, so nothing’s in my mind,” Russell said. “But when I got control of the ball, I knew we had it.”

Another play off the pipe was nearly as significant. With Navy up 7-6, the Tigers’ Jason Doneger zipped a shot off the left side of the goal. It bounded back toward midfield, where senior long pole Thomas Morris picked it up. He raced into Princeton territory and passed to Ian Dingman, who in turn found Jon Birsner on the goalmouth for the easy score.

It was one of the few times the Mids got any production from their attack. With the stingy Tigers shutting down Birsner, Dingman and Joe Bossi for much of the day, it was left to Navy’s midfielders to keep the offense on track.

They were more than capable. Gill scored twice in the first quarter, both from the outside. Bailey hammered two shots past Law in the second quarter as Navy built a 5-4 lead. Adam Reel, part of Navy’s second midfield, also scored in the first half.

Yet it was freshman Billy Looney’s goal late in the third quarter that put the Mids in command. With the Tigers defense finally forcing Navy into the middle of the field, Looney emerged with an open 18-yard look and deposited a bullet to put the Mids up 7-5.

“We do a good job of what we call the three-man game,” Bailey said. “Things just started going our way. We have three athletic guys on our midfield. … It was a midfield game and we were clicking on all cylinders.”

Although the Tigers trailed throughout and didn’t have many opportunities on offense, the game evolved into the type they traditionally thrive on in the postseason. Princeton was 7-1 in NCAA tournament games decided by two goals or less since 2000 and was 8-1 all-time in the semifinals.

But even with Princeton’s history and the largest crowd in tournament history watching, the Mids moved within a game of capping a fairy tale season with the program’s first NCAA title.

“We’re here because we’re good,” Russell said. “Everybody feels confident we’re going to win.”

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