Princeton flourishes on close calls Tigers have taken three lacrosse titles in overtime thrillers

May 23, 1997|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

In chatting with Princeton coach Bill Tierney, it becomes apparent that he would prefer not to talk about it.

The slight hesitancy in voicing his thoughts the short pauses before answering. anything not to disrupt Princeton's secret weapon -- luck.

In three overtime NCAA championship games, the Tigers have walked away with rings. In Princeton's 10 tournament games decided by two or fewer goals, it has won nine times.

"Yeah, I think we're lucky," Tierney said. "Normally, things like that tend to even themselves out. It hasn't happened to us yet and I hate to put that word yet in there."

If that streak continues over this weekend, Princeton would become the first repeat NCAA champion in seven years. The Tigers won NCAA titles in 1992, 1994 and 1996, and all games went to overtime.

Princeton has been victorious in seven straight overtime games, last losing in sudden death in 1991 to Towson State.

So how much luck is involved in determining overtime games?

After taking a deep breath, Tierney said: "I think a lot; I really do. So much matters on how the play runs, getting a good shot and if the goalie makes the save. There are so many freak things that can happen."

Many coaches refer to Princeton as the luckiest team in the country. In the same breath, they'll talk in depth about the Tigers' abundance of talent and their strict execution.

Just ask Virginia coach Dom Starsia, whose Cavaliers lost to Princeton in sudden death in the 1994 and 1996 championship games, as well as in the second game of the season.

In the 1994 championship, Princeton's winning goal came 42 seconds into overtime off a busted play as Kevin Lowe scooped up an inadvertent pass and scored.

Last year, the Tigers had at least three goals in the title game after a Virginia defenseman had fallen, and again scored the winning goal in their first possession 34 seconds in overtime.

"They make their own luck," Starsia said. "They have confidence in themselves, they have confidence in their coach and they have confidence in their system. The other teams better watch ** out because if there is any luck to be had, they're out there grabbing it."

That confidence has become a product of consistently playing in tight games.

In Princeton's 17 NCAA tournament games, only seven have ended in a margin larger than two goals. And it's not a coincidence.

When the Tigers broke onto the national scene, they played a conservative, patient attack to avoid a run-and-gun contest. Now, opponents have turned this strategy against Princeton.

"When we first started, the only way we were going to win was a close game," Tierney said. "Now that we have a little more firepower, the other teams are playing us conservatively."

After winning the semifinal and championship games by a combined three goals last year, Princeton called on its close-game experience in its first three contests this season. The Tigers won each by a goal, including two by overtime.

Princeton's toughest test came in the season opener against Hopkins, which rallied from two goals down in the final 1 1/2 minutes to send the game to overtime. But as usual, the Tigers won the opening faceoff and Josh Sims flicked in a rebound shot blindly behind his back.

Other than Saturday's 11-9 win over Massachusetts in the NCAA quarterfinals, Princeton hasn't been threatened since March and has extended its winning streak to 26 consecutive games, the third-longest streak in Division I men's lacrosse history.

But the Tigers never admit any pressure from being the most hunted team in the nation. They never concede any of the burdens of trying to become the first back-to-back champions since the Gait brothers were at Syracuse.

Remember, it helps to have a secret weapon.

"It's fun knowing the other team wants to knock your head off," Princeton junior defenseman Christian Cook said. "I'd rather be looking down from the top."

Tigers' tale

Of Princeton's 17 NCAA tournament games, 10 have been decided by two or fewer goals. The Tigers are 9-1 in those games. A look at Princeton's close calls in the NCAA tournament:

Year .... Rd. ...... Opponent .... Res.

1990 .... 1st ...... Hopkins ..... W 9-8

1991 ..... QF ...... Towson ...... L 14-13-z

1992 ..... QF ...... Maryland .... W 11-10

.......... SF ..... N. Carolina .. W 16-14

........... F ...... Syracuse .... W 10-9-y

1994 ..... QF ...... Hopkins ..... W 12-11-x

........... F ...... Virginia .... W 9-8-x

1996 ..... SF ...... Syracuse .... W 11-9

........... F ...... Virginia .... W 13-12-x

1997 ..... QF ...... UMass ....... W 11-9

x--overtime; y--2OT; z--3OT

Tigers at a glance

Location: Princeton, N.J.

Coach: Bill Tierney

1997 record: 13-0

NCAA tournament titles: Three

Tournament record: 13-4

How the Tigers got here: Top seed; beat Massachusetts, 11-9, in quarterfinals

Goals leader: Chris Massey (39)

Assists leader: Jon Hess (40)

Faceoffs leader: James Mitchell (.620)

Goalkeeper: Pat Cairns (.605)

Pub Date: 5/23/97

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