Gill saves day, Virginia wins NCAA title, 12-10

As Syracuse knocks, Baltimorean locks up

June 01, 1999|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Quiet and reserved, Virginia attackman Conor Gill preferred not to bolt to the center of the field and join the Cavaliers' massive pileup, fearing he would end up on the bottom.

Who could blame him? The St. Paul's School graduate had already lifted enough weight for Virginia.

After No. 8 Syracuse stormed back to within one on a five-goal, fourth-quarter blitz, the Virginia freshman accepted the burden of rescuing an NCAA Division I lacrosse championship season, delivering a goal and an assist in a 21-second span that catapulted the No. 3 Cavaliers to a 12-10 triumph yesterday at Byrd Stadium.

Gill staged one of the more dramatic efforts by a first-year player before a crowd of 24,135 and a national television audience, becoming the first freshman to win the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award.

Clutch performances in the NCAA championship game have eluded the Cavaliers in the past. Virginia (13-3), which had lost in four straight NCAA finals in overtime, won its second NCAA title, its first since 1972.

"We needed somebody to step up and make a play," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "Obviously as a team, we were backpedaling a little bit. You might not pick out a freshman, but you need one of your key guys to say: `Here we go and hold on.' You don't see a lot of kids doing what Conor did."

The Cavaliers executed a near-perfect first half offensively and pulled out to a 10-4 lead 1 1/2 minutes into the fourth quarter on Hanley Holcomb's goal. But that cushion quickly evaporated in the 90-degree heat as the Orangemen revved up their transition attack to score five times over nine minutes and cut their deficit to 10-9 with 3: 36 remaining.

On the ensuing faceoff, Virginia's Jason Hard won the draw against Chris Cercy after losing four of the previous seven matchups.

The Cavaliers moved the ball behind the cage to Gill, who noticed freshman defenseman Billy St. George stumble while rushing out on him. Gill maneuvered around the left side of the crease and charged through a slash to the face before flicking the ball into the upper left corner of the goal with 2: 59 left.

"In a sense, I knew our attack had to do something," said Gill, a Timonium resident who last won a title as an eighth-grader in the Cockeysville recreation program. At St. Paul's he lost in two high school championship games.

"I didn't see the ball go in," he said, "so I wasn't sure what happened. When people swarmed me, I guess I knew something good happened."

Virginia's David Jenkins controlled the next faceoff, and the ball once again found its way back into Gill's stick behind the goal.

Initiating his move from the right side, Gill dodged a defender and then sidestepped Syracuse goalkeeper Rob Mulligan, who was forced out of the crease to try for a take-away, with a slick head-and-shoulder fake. Drawing the Orangemen's attention, Gill fed Henry Oakey for the open-net score with 2: 38 remaining to push the Cavaliers up 12-9.

"When they got within 10-9, I felt like as a senior and a captain that I probably should go to the goal the next time I got the ball," said Tucker Radebaugh, Virginia's first-team All-America attackman and also a St. Paul's graduate. "Conor's composure is just unbelievable. It shocks me day after day."

Virginia went early and often to the goal individually in the first half against a pressure-minded Syracuse defense. Five different Cavaliers scored unassisted off dodges, four of which were provided by the midfield, as Virginia caught Mulligan guessing at times to take a 5-1, first-quarter lead.

The Orangemen (12-5) muddled through the second quarter, throwing away passes and wasting three extra-man situations. Syracuse scored its only goal on 10 shots that period to close to 7-3, but then committed a costly turnover when it failed to clear the ball out of its defensive end within the 10-second limit. Just 24 seconds later, Gill set up Michael Leahy to send the Cavaliers into halftime with an 8-3 advantage.

Virginia grinded to a 10-4 lead by the fourth quarter before Syracuse began to provide Starsia flashbacks of last May, when the Orangemen made up a six-goal deficit in the second half to eliminate the Cavaliers in the quarterfinals.

"The thought occurred to me," Starsia said. "Yes, I was concerned."

Syracuse's Ryan Powell, who was slowed by a lower-back injury sustained in Saturday's semifinal, scored his second goal of the fourth with 6 1/2 minutes remaining to clip Virginia's lead to 10-8, and Tim Byrnes slipped a shot inside the right post three minutes later.

But just 37 seconds after the Orangemen started pumping their fists, Gill made it 11-9. Only moments after the "Let's go Orange" chant by the Syracuse fans, Gill manufactured Oakey's open-goal chance for 12-9.

"Maybe it was asking a little too much of the guys to make the comeback," Syracuse first-year coach John Desko said.

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