Slowing down almost stops Syracuse's NCAA title run

May 28, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

PISCATAWAY, N.J. - The style that distinguishes Syracuse from other teams also hurts the Orangemen, and it almost cost them the national championship yesterday.

Syracuse survived a 13-12 scare from Princeton in the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship game at Rutgers Stadium yesterday, but the Orangemen were much better than the Tigers. Syracuse was much better than Princeton in last year's championship game, too, despite losing.

As a matter of fact, maybe no other team in this year's tournament underachieved more than Syracuse.

And Syracuse still won its second title in three years.

That's because the Orangemen, year in and year out, have the best athletes in lacrosse. They hit teams with waves of players like Michael Powell, Brian Solliday, Josh Coffman and Michael Springer. When they are on their game, it's beautiful to watch. The over-the-shoulder shots, the precise cuts, the four- and five-goal runs. No team can run with the Orangemen.

But, at other times, they can become one of the most undisciplined, frustrating, sloppy and self-destructing teams in sports. If you're a fan of lacrosse, watching Syracuse play is definitely worth the money. If you're an Orangemen fan, then your heart flutters every time Syracuse plays Princeton.

The styles are so different.

Princeton runs a deliberate, slowdown offense compared with the high-octane offense of Syracuse. A three- or four-goal lead by Princeton in almost any game is nearly insurmountable, but when Syracuse has a three- or four-goal lead, almost anything can happen.

And that's the main difference between former Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr., one of the best ever in the game, and current coach John Desko, who replaced Simmons four years ago. When Simmons had a lead, he would never slow it down. His pace was relentless. Desko tries to coach too much. He tries to control the clock.

Those are the times when he makes Princeton coach Bill Tierney look like a genius instead of being the best coach in college lacrosse. It got Syracuse in trouble again yesterday, and almost cost the Orangemen the national championship.

When Powell, an attackman, scored on a low underhand shot to give Syracuse a 12-7 lead with 10:24 left in the third quarter, that should have put Princeton away. It should have been time to put on the NCAA championship T-shirts, and start mugging and saying "Hi, Mom" to the ESPN cameras.

But instead of running and gunning, Desko did the unthinkable. He ordered the troops to slow it down.

Bad move, John. Let the boys run.

"When it was 12-8, I was hoping it wouldn't get to 20-8 real quick," said Tierney.

Instead, Princeton scored the next three goals to make it 12-11 with 1:05 left in the period, thanks largely to the slowdown tactics and some sloppy turnovers in transition that usually accompany a Syracuse game.

But from then on, the game turned into a thriller.

"I tried to take the air out of the ball and win the game with the clock," Desko said. "We wanted to freeze it, sit on it a little bit more after we got the lead. I got caught up in that. We were fortunate to hold on at the end."

Yes, they were. Once Desko interfered with the Orangemen's rhythm, they stayed out of sync. Late in the game, they were extremely sloppy. Twice in the final four minutes they had the ball stripped away from double teams on the offensive end as they tried to run off time.

It was even more frustrating because the turnovers were results of Princeton slides, of which a well-coached team should have been aware. Syracuse midfielder Spencer Wright lost possession with 3:36 left in the game, and midfielder Tom Hardy had it stripped with 2:45 remaining and the Orangemen clinging to the 13-12 lead. An even more glaring mistake occurred when Wright was pushed outside the box at the offensive end with six seconds remaining instead of flipping it back near the goal, which would have run out the remaining time.

Instead, Princeton got the ball near midfield with a man advantage, but the Tigers failed to get off a shot.

Syracuse was fortunate, because this would have been a difficult game to lose. Princeton has a good defense, but there were times yesterday when the Orangemen were working passes around their zone defense for a second time before the Tigers came out to engage them.

Princeton couldn't hang with Syracuse's offense. Midfielder Solliday had three goals and an assist, and attackman Coffman had two goals and one assist. The Tigers had no answer for Powell, not even defenseman Damien Davis. Powell finished with four goals, three assists and performed two picks that led to two other goals.

The only person who stopped Powell and Co. was Desko, much like Dean Smith contained Michael Jordan at North Carolina.

"You pick your poison," said Tierney about Syracuse. "You don't stop any individuals on Syracuse. You try your best to try different defensive schemes, and they did a great job early. Michael is a fabulous lacrosse player."

Powell scored what proved to be the game-winner on a high shot from 12 yards with 11:35 left in the game. Desko wanted the Orangemen to slow it down then, too, but Powell ignored the advice.

"Whenever I get an opportunity to shoot, it's great," Powell said. "Coach was trying to slow it down towards the end, and I don't like to slow down that much."

That's not their style. It's run and gun that has led to so many championships through the years.

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