Guest post by Liam Gillis
Memorial Day weekend is known for its wonderful weather, which was the case Saturday. A perfect day not too hot or cold, no clouds to be found, and a delightful breeze.
The lacrosse being played under this weather did its best to uphold the high standard mother nature was setting. Both Men’s Division 1 Semifinals needed an extra period of play to crown a victor. Fans could not have asked for much more.
Everything about the day was “perfect” except for one call by the officials, that unfortunately for Penn State fans will probably be the only thing they remember. But you don’t start at the end, so back to the beginning it is, the only thing anyone on lacrosse Twitter talked about Saturday evening will have to wait.
In their 10th meeting of all time, Penn State was looking to get their first-ever win against Duke. If there ever was a year to do so, Saturday was the chance. Not many people expected Penn State to be at Championship Weekend let alone playing like they were.
It felt like the Nittany Lions were playing with house money and making full advantage of that along the way. Something about a team that just seems to be so dangerous, when they seem to be genuinely enjoying situations others might expect them to struggle in. Who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
Duke opened the scoring with 13:10 left in the first quarter on a little twister goal from Dyson Williams. Duke moved the ball from one low wing, through x, and up to Williams on the far wing so fast, there’d have been no question that Garrett Leadmon would have gotten a “hockey assist” as well on the play, in addition to Andrew McAdorey’s assist that did make the stat sheet, if lacrosse recorded those.
When the Blue Devils first found the back of the net, the roar of the crowd would have had any veteran Championship Weekend goer thinking “that makes sense, Duke travels well”. Well, Penn State fans were listening and probably thinking “hold my beer”.
Then at 11:14, Duke’s Wilson Stephenson is behind the cage covering Penn State’s Ethan Long who moves the ball, which then continues to travel toward the top of the box. Stephenson then travels to the front of the cage where he commits a cardinal sin for a defender, and is caught ball-watching.
During the next 15 seconds, the Duke defense loses track of Long, who then identifies this behind the cage. Long then waits for his chance and cuts to the front of the net gaining just enough of an open window to catch, turn, and shoot seemingly all in one motion. Duke defender Kenny Brower did catch a glimpse of Long’s cut and tried to come over in support, but it was too little too late.
Now that is when the stadium really got loud. The goal went in at 10:59, “Kernkraft 400” started playing, and the entire stadium was reminded that despite its “neutral site” status this game might as well have been in Happy Valley.
Duke would answer 51 seconds later at 10:08 with an unassisted strike from Charles Balsamo to take back the lead 2-1. The freshman caught the ball and passes up a decent look with a fake shot / hitch to get by the first defender. He then takes as many more steps as possible to get all the way to almost dead center in front of the goal and absorbs a big hit, as he gets off the now great shot and scores.
Kevin Winkoff’s first two assists of five on the day would help put the next two points on the board for the Nittany Lions, with goals from TJ Malone (8:31) and Jeb Brenfleck (7:28) on the man advantage, giving Penn State the lead 3-2.
Penn State’s first lead would be short-lived when at 6:44 Tewaaraton Award Finalist Brennan O’Neill delivered his first of three unassisted goals on the day to tie it 3-3.
From behind the goal the Team USA member ran by two defenders, and as he comes around to turn right, gets his hand plenty free for a lefty rip of a bouncer to the far low corner.
Mac Costin took back the lead at 4:09 with an unassisted laser of goal out of a right-to-left split coming across the top of the field to make it 4-3 for Penn State.
Apparently, though O’Neill did not want to let any lead live long for the Nittany Lions as nineteen seconds later he scores basically the same goal Costin did, just out of a roll instead of a split to tie the game back up at 4-4.
O’Neill’s second goal of the day at 3:50 in the first quarter would start a four-goal run for Duke that would last until 9:48 of the second quarter and give the Blue Devils a 7-4 advantage. Leadmon, Tommy Schelling, and Williams would all find the back of the net during that time.
The Traynor’s would stop the bleeding for Penn State, with the Nittany Lions’ first two tallies of the second quarter. Older brother Jack Traynor would lead the way at 9:48 in the second with a step-down goal from up top off a Costin assist to get his team within two points.
Younger brother Matt Traynor wanted to show he came to play as well though. Just 43 seconds after his sibling, Matt also scored a nice step-down goal quickly off an assist, similar to his brother’s score, but assisted by Jake Morin instead. That second Traynor goal with 9:05 left in the 2nd cut it to just a 7-6 deficit.
Unfortunately for the Traynors, Duke would answer back with two unanswered goals of their own, extending the lead back to 3 points.
With 7:38 left in the second quarter, Leadmon found the back of the net for a second time and this time unassisted. O’Neill sends a feed from a bit below the goal-line to Leadmon up top. He catches it with his stick to the outside in his right hand. Leadmon proceeds to take a big couple of steps downfield, raises his arms up and away from his body, and gets about as far into a shot without actually shooting before throwing the fake as I have ever seen.
Out of this beautiful fake shot/hitch, the 6’4” 225lbs midfielder pulls his stick back into his body, as he slips into a silky-smooth face-dodge, switching the stick to his left hand, and actually taking several more (very productive) steps back upfield towards the middle of the goal. With his hands free and this now incredible angle by getting his stick to the inside, Leadmon stings a goal top shelf at 7:38, making it an 8-6 Duke lead.
Superstar O’Neill was determined to make his presence felt, which he did.
With about five minutes remaining in the half, O’Neill dodges on Penn State’s short stick midfielder Kyle Aldridge. Before the dodge, O’Neill briefly puts his stick in his right hand then quickly back to his left, but all before really starting to initiate the dodge.
It was almost as if he thought about his right and switching mid-dodge but decided instead, “No I’ll be good left-to-left the whole way through”. Talk about confidence, and rightfully so.
O’Neill gains separation from Aldridge and long stick midfield Sam Sweeney’s attempted help was too late. The result was a gorgeous jump shot that O’Neill stung just inside the far pipe and would have had any Duke fan smiling while reminiscing to flashbacks of the great Jordan Wolf’s signature jumpers.
The elevation off the ground O’Neill got, to raise his point of release for the shot by getting his stick so high in the air, was downright impressive. This also made the level change of the shot from high to low even more drastic and thus more challenging to stop.
This goal with 4:54 left in the half was O’Neill’s third of the day, giving Duke a 9-6 lead and O’Neill a hattrick. Also, worth noting and very impressive that all three were unassisted and this was his 10th hat trick of the year.
Number thirty-four was a superstar behaving like Superman out there, giving off major “time to put the team on my back and make sure this happens” energy.
Sixteen seconds later though Penn State’s deadly efficient response would be the last goal of the first half, with 4:38 remaining, to put them within two goals going into halftime trailing 9-7. It was a series that would make any coach smile and think that their transition drills in practice are paying off.
Sweeney got the loose ball on his defensive end and cleared it to Mark Sickler crossing the midfield line down the right alley. Sickler throws it to Jake Morin streaking down the middle of the field as he hits the top of the box, and Moran immediately moves it one more to Winkoff coming along the left alley. Winkoff would then throw the ball across back towards the right of the field when he found a wide-open TJ Malone coming in along just above the goal line.
During this transitional charge, Duke defender Brower had taken the bait and let himself get sucked all the way over to the left sideline where the ball had kept moving towards. The problem was, he kept his back to Malone until it was far too late and no one else picked up Malone.
The result was Malone with so much room, that he was able to take several steps right across the middle in front of the net, had time to throw a fake, score, and was never touched even as he finished the play.
Coming across the middle like a slot receiver is often a goal that costs the scorer getting absolutely crushed. Malone though went unscathed thanks to the amount of extremely fast and smart passes by Penn State causing Duke to get caught ball-watching. Their precision was surgical, and they never stopped moving upfield at full speed the entire sequence.
By the time Brower realized Malone was alone it was far too late and he found himself caught in a no man’s land that is both useless too and where no defender wants to end up.
Chase Mullins would win the opening faceoff of the second half, although on the day the draw battle went to Duke with twenty-two wins to Penn State’s thirteen wins. The first half was tied nine to nine wins, but in the second half, Duke would win the faceoffs twelve to four.
The second-half scoring would open up with 11:28 to go in the third quarter with Duke’s seventh unassisted goal, Balsamo’s second of the day, to extend the lead to 10-7. It was just a simple downhill drive, and he buried a solid overhand take, far, away, and low.
Penn State answered back just over a minute later at 10:13 when Costin dodged his defender and drew a slide. The slide came from the man covering Malone leaving him open and Costin fed him the ball. A nice step-down shot with two slides now coming in his face and Malone put Penn State back within two.
With about nine and a half minutes to go a defensive miscommunication by Penn State left their long stick midfielder Ryan O’Connor covering both Jake Naso and Tommy Schelling alone on the flat to the goalie’s right.
Even if he was only caught in no man’s land for a few seconds, it was too long. By the time O’Connor committed out to Naso, Naso dumped the ball off to Schelling who capitalized on the chance. He spun around and immediately buried the ball in the back of the net with 9:17 remaining in the third to put Duke up 11-8.
Then after a huge kick save by Penn State keeper Jack Fracyon, the Nittany Lions brought it all the way back down for another Malone goal at 8:34 to make it 11-9. This was Malone’s fourth goal of the day and Winkoff’s fifth assist as these veterans tried to will their squad into contention.
Malone would also assist the next goal to Luke Mercer with 7:43 left in the third quarter to put the Nittany Lions with one point 11-10. It was a quickly released low-to-high rip as Mercer stumbled back to one knee.
The Blue Devils and Nittany Lions continued to trade alternating blows one for one, throughout the rest of the third quarter with Aidan Danenza and Naso scoring for Duke while Matt Traynor and TJ Malone again scored for Penn State.
Naso’s two goals and one assist in this contest were a useful addition for the Blue Devils in addition to his reliably solid faceoff play, and Duke took a 13-12 lead into the final quarter.
This Jack Traynor to Matt Traynor connection was also sweet and a moment those two probably won’t forget anytime soon. How many people can say they assisted a goal to or scored a goal from their sibling in a national semifinal?
A second Penn State goal in a row, at 9:35 in the fourth quarter, saw things all tied up at 13-13 and was Penn State’s first time not trailing since being tied 4-4 with 3:50 left back in the first quarter.
It was some of the usual suspects again and a familiar scene here, Malone did just enough to draw the slide and dump it to an open Morin in the middle for a layup.
Just like the first three quarters, these two teams would continue to battle it out alternating goals for the rest of the game.
Duke would take back the lead 14-13 with 8:50 left when Owen Caputo drew enough attention to cause the Penn State defense to lose Jadon Kerry in the middle, who scored off the Caputo assist.
Then with 6:26 to go Winkoff scored an unassisted goal for his sixth and final point of the day, bringing it back to even at 14-14. He took on Duke short stick defensive midfielder Jack Gray from the wing, one hard fake step upfield, and beat him underneath to the cage.
Naso would then answer back for the Blue Devils with his third and final point of the day at 6:12 off an assist from a more regular offensive weapon Williams.
The decision for Naso to stay on a bit longer after the draws paid off again here as he found himself floating relatively open for a feed from Williams down in the alley, and they put Duke back in front 15-14.
All season though Penn State has been the dog that refuses to die, and they most certainly weren’t going to give up on that easily.
With just over five minutes left to play Costin passed the ball to Morin deep below the goal. Morin drove hard and carried the ball through x, up the opposite side of the net, and to the goal line.
While doing so he held the ball probably as long as possible, to draw in the two Duke defenders he did and get a third ball watching, leaving Malone open in front of the net again.
Malone wasted no time catching and finishing. A third Duke defender was late to help after apparently focusing too much on that ball movement through X and Morin’s drive. This again tied the game 15-15 with 5:07 left to play.
This would cap off a stunning eight-point performance by Malone who most certainly did not want to see his season end.
One’s heart must break for any athlete who might be in their last season ever of a certain type, puts up that kind of effort, and still comes up just short of the day’s goal.
With 1:31 to play, Duke’s Caputo got a thirty-second pushing penalty. However, PSU only managed one shot on the man advantage and it did not convert.
Duke fans thought they might have been sealing the deal when, with under two seconds left, O’Neill got a feed off to Leadmon in front of the cage. Leadmon catches and shoots but the shot sails wide left and time expires.
The game headed to overtime tied 15-15 with a ticket to the National Championship match on the line.
Sudden death overtime was needed to decide this stalemate, and that only seems fitting. It felt as though both squads just kept trading blows and alternating scores, as if no squad could allow themselves to let the other get too far away.
It was like two heavy-weight boxers just slugging it out. Almost felt like two colonial superpowers fighting during the old days of “civilized war” as they called it, you know when they would just line up in a field and take turns back and forth?
Naso came up big again for Duke to start the overtime period, being the guy to come out of a messy ground ball scrap around the opening draw, with the ball in his stick. He then makes the safe and smart play passing the ball back to his defense to run the clear.
Duke successfully clears to the offensive end. They begin probing the defense and it seems Leadmon runs from the top of the box all the way around x and back above the goal line with the ball in his stick. What happens next sent the lacrosse world into a frenzy.
Leadmon beats his defender on an inside roll, dives into the crease, and scores. No question he avoids the goal mouth, so the dive isn’t an issue.
However, it seems most everyone agrees and the replay was clear that Leadmon’s foot was clearly in the crease.
The problem is that play is not reviewable yet under college lacrosse rules and the officials left the field immediately. The only video review we have right now is during the quarter-finals onward, and they can only review to: correct a clock malfunction, the release of a shot in relation to time expiring, if a shot deflected off of a player before scoring, and if a shot hits a camera inside the goal cage.
The players and coaches will play hard either way and let the officials sort it out, that’s natural.
These athletes are not making high-pressure last-second plays with breaking a rule in mind, they are just thinking about trying to do what they need to. If anything they are trying to do it the right way to avoid foul.
Even the officials are humans too, who have to make quick decisions in real-time, and clearly without enough video assistance.
So the real party this will and should fall to is the NCAA and their rules committee. While they will want to be careful not to overdo the reviews and slow the game down too much, lacrosse is already a very fast game, I think we could spare enough time to make sure such obviously correctable calls get corrected especially with so much on the line.
Yes much more than that one play and call decided the game, either team could have done things differently all throughout.
The reality is though that is what it came down to and a pretty simple video review system could have at least made sure a controversial mistake did not rule the talk about this game in the end as it did. Honestly an ugly blemish on an otherwise perfect day of semifinals.
It would also stand to venture that the NCAA and all teams involved in situations like that, win or lose, would rather their games be decided by just good hard play of the athletes and not even have to leave it up to the officials.
But until humans somehow become perfect and no fouls are committed and no super high-speed edge-of-the-line calls are missed, please NCAA, do the sensible thing and figure out the best replay system for college we can come up with.
If this game taught us one thing we can all agree on, it is that the ending of this match is beyond enough evidence that we need some more level of video review than the almost non-existent level now.
What amount of and purposes for reviews will be the right combination? No one can say for sure today, but we can’t figure it out until we try something different
Congrats to Duke on the win and they will take on Notre Dame on Monday for the National Championship at 1PM on ESPN. It will be their seventh title game, in pursuit of a fourth title, and first since 2014.
Also congrats to Penn State on a hell of a season many people might not have seen coming, that was quite the effort, and they should be very proud.
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