PISCATAWAY, N.J. - The final horn sounded. Towson coach Tony Seaman took off his cap, wound up and slammed it to the soggy turf at Rutgers Field.
Unfortunately for his Tigers, it was the first time they found their target in more than two minutes.
The greatest one-season turnaround in the history of Division I lacrosse came to a frustrating finish yesterday, as Towson rallied from several four-goal deficits but lost to Princeton, 12-11, in the semifinals of the NCAA men's tournament on an unsettled goal by Sean Hartofilis with 2:02 left.
"It's been a wonderful, terrific year," Seaman said. "We never backed down or quit. We're not a team of superstars, but we proved today that we're just not going to go away."
Top-ranked Princeton (13-1) will meet top-seeded Syracuse in tomorrow's championship game. The same matchup concluded last season, when Towson (14-4) went 3-10. In yesterday's tale of two Tigers, the sixth seed stared into the oblivion of multiple-goal deficits for most of the game, but then Justin Berry began to own the faceoff circle, John Horrigan became unbeatable in the goal and Towson's offensive balance threw off Princeton.
Its final goal of the season was vintage Towson. Horrigan scooped up a loose ball in front of his cage, and fired an outlet pass to Wesley Speaks. The defenseman advanced it to Ryan Obloj, who fed Brad Reppert. The junior out of Loyola High beat Trevor Tierney with 2:33 left to complete a 5-1 run that erased what had been a 10-6 Princeton lead heading into the final 10 minutes.
Berry won his seventh faceoff of the fourth quarter, but then Towson's fairy tale went "poof." Before Seaman and his staff got the timeout they wanted, Berry was forced into his defensive end, where Towson couldn't stop the clock.
The ball was passed back to Horrigan, who couldn't escape the ride of Princeton attackman Ryan Boyle, the freshman from Gilman who was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Ryan Mollett, the defenseman from Boys' Latin who was the Ivy League Player of the Year, got possession and spied an open Hartofolis on the right wing. His shot took one bounce and skittered under Horrigan for his fourth goal.
"That probably meant the end of Cinderella," Seaman said. "Midnight struck."
Tierney, the coach's son, withstood one last barrage by Towson, which took 16 shots in the fourth quarter. After Berry controlled the final faceoff, Obloj shot wide. He then beat his defender, but put a shot right on Tierney with 1:25 left. A minute later, Tierney made a stick save on Hunter Lochte's cannon from out top, and Princeton's ninth straight win in a one-goal game in the tournament was secure.
"Hunter was going high all day," Tierney said. "That time, he went low to low, and I saw it. We knew this was going to be a high-scoring game. I knew all I had to do was just weather the storm. I make teams beat me by putting it in corners and on the pipes. Unfortunately, they [Towson] put them in the corners and on the pipes."
Tierney backed the stingiest defense in the nation, as he came in allowing 5.0 goals per game. Only one other team, Syracuse in a 14-8 victory on March 24, reached double figures on Princeton.
Despite the focus on the finish, Princeton never trailed after a pivotal first-half stretch in which it blanked run-and-gun Towson for more than 19 minutes and scored six straight goals, the biggest spurt surrendered by Seaman's team this season. Lochte put Towson on top 3-1 with 4:29 left in the first quarter. Princeton led 7-3 before Obloj ended the drought with 19 seconds left in the half.
Princeton's run was fed by some nonchalant Towson passing and extra-man opportunities. Adam Baxter, the sophomore defenseman from Severna Park, marked Boyle and "stayed in his gloves," but too closely for the officials, as he was called for three penalties. Towson spent seven minutes in the penalty box, compared to four for Princeton.
"The fouls today really killed us, that was the difference," Seaman said. "Even with that, at the end of the game, I still thought we were going to win."
Princeton will play in its seventh championship game in 10 years. Towson last got to the final four in 1991, and Seaman squeezed the underdog status for all it was worth. At Friday's walk-through, he gave his young team the "Hoosiers," speech, telling them that the goals here were the same size as the ones at Minnegan Stadium. Towson snared the support of most of the crowd of 21,103; it just couldn't win the game.
"I just told all our kids in the locker room, this is by far one of the best experiences I've ever had in 32 years of coaching," said Seaman, who was fired by Johns Hopkins three years ago. "The whole story has been wonderful, except for what happened today at 5:30."
Princeton 2 5 1 4 - 12
Towson 3 1 1 6 - 11
Goals: P-Hartofolis 4, Prager 3, Bailer, Torti, Harrington, Doneger, Striebel; T-Campbell 3, Reppert 3, Loche 2, Tankersley, Obloj, Horowitz. Assists: P-Boyle 2, Prager, MacColl, Harrington, White, Dumont, Casino, Striebel, Rosenbaum, Mollett; T-Monaco 3, Obloj 2, Tankersley 2, Loche. Saves: P-Tierney 13; T-Horrigan 14.
Lacrosse final 4
At Piscataway, N.J. Yesterday's semifinals
Syracuse 12, Notre Dame 5
Princeton 12, Towson 11 Tomorrow's championship
Syracuse (13-2) vs. Princeton (13-1), 11 a.m., ESPN