Navy junior midfielder Graham Gill could laugh about the miss now, since his team had lived to play for one final day.
Without Gill's two goals in Navy's 8-7 victory over Princeton yesterday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Midshipmen might not be facing Syracuse tomorrow in the academy's first appearance in the NCAA men's lacrosse title game since 1975.
But amid the relief that hung over the Mids' locker room, Gill also digested an errant shot he would rather forget.
In the last two minutes, Navy burned two timeouts while holding the ball, following a critical Princeton turnover. Eventually, the Tigers had to extend their defense to the point where sophomore goalkeeper Dave Law vacated the cage.
That left an opening for Gill, who shook a double team on the right wing from about 20 yards out, charged toward the crease, saw Law coming back to the net from his left, then let fly a 5-yard shot toward the right corner that should have produced an easy, game-clinching score with 36 seconds left.
Instead, the shot struck the right pipe, caromed out of bounds and gave Princeton the ball with 33 seconds left and a chance to force overtime.
"My stomach just dropped," Gill said. "I'm not going to forget seeing the ball go off the pipe. I saw the goalie coming across, and I switched hands [to his right] to shoot at the goal and then hit the pipe. I've never missed a shot like that."
Thus began what Navy senior midfielder Ben Bailey called "the longest 33 seconds of my life." The story ended happily for the Mids when sophomore goalie Matt Russell stuffed the final shot of the game by Princeton's Peter Trombino.
Finally, someone other than Syracuse had beaten the Tigers in the NCAA tournament. (Since 1991, the Tigers had held a 22-0 NCAA tournament mark vs. everyone except Syracuse.)
Navy coach Richie Meade had no problem with Gill taking the shot, even though the Mids possibly could have run out the clock by holding the ball.
"We drilled all week for that situation, and we did everything right except execute the end of the play," Meade said. "When Graham hit the pipe, I thought, why couldn't that go in?"
For Gill, who has six goals and an assist in the tournament and stood on the sideline watching the defense silence Princeton, the ending was sweet - a guy who was forced to play South Jersey club lacrosse because Shawnee High School did not have a lacrosse program is playing for a national championship.
"I was really upset when I missed it," said Gill, a soccer star in high school. "But knowing you're going to the finals cheers you up a little bit."
What went wrong?
Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala laid the blame for yesterday's 15-9 meltdown against Syracuse squarely on his defense and himself.
"We missed slides," he said. "We hesitated a lot. ... if you want to blame anyone for the amount of goals that were given up, there's no need to look any further than me."
There was pre-tournament talk that Hopkins could be exposed at the defensive end, especially if an opponent won enough faceoffs and controlled the ball effectively. Syracuse pulled off the game plan beautifully.
"The thing that I hate most on the field is sitting and watching their offense ... because you feel helpless," Syracuse attackman Michael Powell said. "We wanted to beat them at their game. ... It forced them to make bad decisions [on defense]."
The paid attendance of 46,923 shattered the previous NCAA record for an outdoor Division I tournament game, breaking the mark of 37,944 set here a year ago.
"The atmosphere, hearing the emotion, that was unbelievable," Meade said. "After the game, I looked up into the [club level] box and could hardly see my little girls. I don't even know if I actually saw them."
With one goal and three assists, Powell, the school's all-time leading scorer, now has 301 career points. ... Navy has beaten the top three teams in the Ivy League to reach the title game.