PHILADELPHIA -- Princeton's game plan worked to near perfection. The Tigers took an early five-goal lead to erase any jitters, and give one of the hottest goalkeepers in the country a little room for error. They also forced North Carolina to turn up its transition game a notch in temperatures that reached 93 degrees.
Near the end of the game, Princeton wanted to be close. And by the end, the No. 3 Tigers had done that and more, defeating No. 2 and defending national champion North Carolina, 16-14, yesterday in an NCAA semifinal at Penn's Franklin Field before 15,523.
Princeton (12-2) will face No. 1 Syracuse (13-1) in tomorrow's championship game at noon. It will be the Tigers' first appearance in the final since the tournament started in 1971.
But Princeton, under coach Bill Tierney, had plenty of poise yesterday in its first Final Four game ever, especially in the final four minutes with the score tied at 14.
That's when Princeton senior midfielder Mal Meistrell beat North Carolina midfielder Dan Donnelly outside the crease for a goal with 3:16 left to put the Tigers ahead, 15-14. Then with 1:49 remaining, Princeton attackman Justin Tortolani, after stalling, circled to his left and beat Tar Heels defenseman Chuck Breschi outside the crease for a goal to seal the game.
Princeton was considered the heavy underdog in this tournament, especially because the competition involved the Big Three -- Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and North Carolina -- one of which had won every NCAA title since 1978.
Plus North Carolina had seemed to reach its peak, winning its last 10 games since losing to Loyola, 7-6, in its fourth game. Included was a 9-8 win over Princeton.
"I feel we made believers out of another group, people who chastised and knocked us around," said Tierney, who was 8-21 in the first two of his five years at Princeton. "Some people felt we weren't playing the same game as teams in New York and Maryland."
But Princeton played with great intensity in the first quarter, taking a 7-2 lead.
Tied 2-2 with 7:06 remaining, the rest of the first quarter belonged to Princeton. Midfielder Andre Moe, after a high fake outside the crease, scored on a low shot with 6:53 left to put Princeton ahead, 3-2.
Then Scott Reinhardt and David Morrow scored 12 seconds apart to make it 5-2. Tortolani scored off the transition with 50 seconds left in the quarter and attackman Kevin Lowe scored 19 seconds later to give Princeton a 7-2 lead.
Tigers goalie Scott Bacigalupo (St. Paul's) stood up to 13-8 Carolina shooting advantage, getting started on his game-high 19 saves.
"I questioned their intensity," North Carolina coach Dave Klarmann said of his players. "I told them Princeton wants to win, too."
"In a big game you'd think we would be up," said Donnelly. "We were ready, but I'm not sure we were up. It's tough to come back and it takes a lot of adrenalin. Princeton was more hungry."
North Carolina made a surge early in the second period on goals by Donnelly, midfielder Ryan Wade and attackman Michael Thomas to pull within 7-5 with 4:17 left in the half. But Morrow scored his second goal of the day with 3:56 remaining, and North Carolina closed out the scoring in the half with a goal from Wade 41 seconds later as Princeton went into the half with an 8-6 lead.
The Tar Heels, though, finally tied the game at 9 on a goal from Thomas with 9:36 left in the third period.
But Princeton again refused to be intimidated, scoring the next four goals for a 23-9 lead with 5:49 remaining.
The Tar Heels pulled within a goal twice in the first eight minutes of the fourth period, and tied it at 14 on a goal from midfielder Donnie McNichol with 5:21 left.
But North Carolina, despite surges, never gained control of the tempo mainly because Princeton held an 18-15 advantage in faceoffs. Klarmann was unable to use faceoff specialist Steve Gilhuley, who had a stomach virus and back aches.