These underdogs have lots of bite

Syracuse sure Tigers won't be a pushover

May 29, 2000|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK- Princeton coach Bill Tierney wasted no time casting his Tigers as decided underdogs against the big, bad Syracuse Orangemen in today's NCAA championship game at Byrd Stadium.

Pardon Syracuse for refusing to buy it.

Sure, Syracuse probably expected to play Virginia for the title. Sure, the Orangemen are five weeks removed from blasting Princeton, 16-4, matching the worst defeat Tierney has suffered in 13 years there. Sure, Syracuse appears to have the offensive talent capable of asserting itself almost on cue.

But one look at the Orangemen's subdued, post-game celebration after its 14-12 semifinal victory over Johns Hopkins revealed the Syracuse state of mind. A few handshakes and high-fives, but little else. Contrast that with the wild mob scene that ensued after Princeton pulled off a stunning, come-from-behind, 12-11 victory over the defending national champion Cavaliers.

"The great thing about this team is there is no overconfidence," said Syracuse defensive midfielder Sam Bassett, whose team is pursuing its seventh championship and first since 1995. "Just because we went to the final four, and this is the 18th straight time, really hasn't earned us anything. Going to the final four is not enough."

It has rarely been enough for Princeton. Under Tierney, the Tigers are 6-1 in semifinal games, and they are perfect in five previous trips to the championship game. Princeton basically owned the 1990s, winning all five of its titles, including three consecutive crowns from 1996 through 1998.

Today marks what might be the Tigers' sweetest trip. They start three freshmen and two sophomores, and are the most youthful finalist Tierney has produced. They have overcome the loss of their leading scorer, attackman B.J. Prager, to a season-ending knee injury. They have reshuffled positions, such as moving short-stick middie Chris Berrier to a long-stick role and replacing Prager with sophomore Brendan Tierney.

The Tigers also have used a reliable formula to get here. They lean on a disciplined defense - surrendering 8.07 goals per game - that can suffocate opponents with man-to-man and zone alignments. They do not force passes and shots on offense, preferring to exploit openings and mismatches with patience. Outside of midfielder Josh Sims, they lack a proven scoring star.

Take the Virginia victory. Out of the blue comes freshman attackman Sean Hartofolis with a career-high five goals, while Brendan Tierney scores the game-winner.

"We've gone back to the early '90s, by trying to win low-scoring games. Our offense is opportunistic, not powerful," said Tierney.

"I think the fog has cleared. They were all business at breakfast [yesterday]," he added. "We kept thinking about how fortunate we are. Now we're thinking about playing Syracuse and I'm not sure how fortunate that is. We played them earlier in the season and they just crushed us. We're looking forward to redeeming ourselves."

The Orangemen do not put much stock in that 16-4 thrashing on April 23. One day earlier, Princeton had sealed its tournament bid with a costly victory over Cornell. That day, Prager's season ended, and the Tigers also lost freshman defenseman Brian Lieberman, one of the better long sticks on the team, to a separated shoulder.

"Princeton is 5-0 in title games. We need to look at that and not the 16-4 win," Syracuse midfielder Tim Byrnes said. "We have to put that out of our minds because this is a different game."

And the Orangemen under second-year coach John Desko differ from the wide-open, run-and-gun teams that defined the Roy Simmons era.

Not that the fast break does not remain a vital part of the Syracuse package. Witness the victory over Hopkins, in which the Orangemen repeatedly hurt the Blue Jays in transition. No one executes a four-on-three break better.

But Desko has admittedly borrowed a page from Tierney's book while putting his own stamp on the Orangemen. Syracuse has evolved to a team that enjoys working the ball around the perimeter and revels in making the extra pass. Defensively, they do not rely strictly on the man-to-man. They are not always looking for shootouts.

Desko expects a tough task in solving Tierney's defense.

"I think Bill Tierney has kind of changed the game of lacrosse a little bit as far as the way defense is played," Desko said. "Offenses have to work harder for goals now. It's not very often that the dodger goes to the goal and scores [in a one-on-one setting].

"We want to take advantage of unsettled situations. That's what we do best, and we will look for that. We've played with heart and hustle. Now we've got to throw a little more head in there."

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