Time, barely, ran out on the Army men’s lacrosse team Sunday afternoon.
The Black Knights’ Jake Morin, on a man-up situation, fired off a potential game-tying goal that hit the back of the Penn State goal net. But it was ruled and confirmed by video replay that the Army junior’s shot was released just a moment after the final clock ran out. The result was a 10-9 victory for the Nittany Lions in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament and a spot in next weekend’s Final Four in Philadelphia and a semifinal date against top-ranked Duke.
For Army, it was the end to a somewhat magical season that saw the Black Knights, who had lost 18 seniors from last year’s team, confound most lacrosse experts and win the Patriot League title after being picked to finish fourth in preseason polls and no votes in the national polls. Adding icing to the cake, Army then stunned defending champion and fourth-seeded Maryland. 16-15, in the NCAA first round last weekend.
Army, which finishes the season at 13-4, was seeking its first championship weekend berth since 1984 when the Black Knights lost to Syracuse in the national semifinals, 11-9.
“I am extremely proud of our guys,” said Army coach Joe Alberici. “This was clearly not our best game, but they still played so hard, We were not connecting the way we had throughout the year, but we still put ourselves in position to win the game.
“I am happy for their success and happy for the way they did it all year long. They worked every day and when they started to string wins together, they remained humble and that enabled them to have the success they did. What else can you ask for? Play hard every day and play hard for each other.”
Army took a quick 2-0 lead on Penn State Sunday but a series of miscues and a tenacious Penn State defense basically shut the Black Knights down for the rest of the first half. Penn State took a 7-3 lead into halftime.
In the second half, Army’s defense, and senior goalie Knox Dent, who had eight saves on the day, rose to the occasion, holding the fifth-seeded Nittany Lions to just three goals. Meanwhile, the Black Knights slowly, but surely, crawled back by scoring five of the last six goals in the contest and putting a lot of pressure on the Penn State defense with 29 second-half shots. They cut the lead to 10-8 on a Gunnar Fellows score with 6:39 left in the game and to just one goal, 10-9, when Finn McCullough scored with 3:41 left in the game.
Army gained its final man-up advantage on a cross-check penalty with just 24 seconds left, but an errant pass created a scrum for the ball in front of the Penn State goal with time winding down. Morin recovered the groundball and hit the top left corner of the Penn State goal net, but it was ruled, correctly, to have left his stick after time had expired.
“At the very end of the game, I had my eyes on the ball and a little on the clock,” said Alberici. “When the play happened, I knew there was going to be a review, but while I knew it was close, I was not hopeful there was time left. It was disappointing, we had a man-up situation there and I was hoping for more than a ground ball shot at the end.”
Fellows, a freshman, finished with three goals for Army, while Morin had two scores. Penn State was led by TJ Malone, who scored four times. Army outshot Penn State, 43-27, won the ground ball battle, 39-37, and faceoffs, 14-9.
While Army loses some seniors, particularly Dent and standout defenseman Deacon Donaldson, to graduation, the Black Knights return the bulk of the squad, including top scorers Morin, Fellows, Reese Burek, Paul Johnson, Bailey O’Connor, Ryan Sposito and Evan Plunkett, as well as all-Patriot League defenseman AJ Pilate and freshman defenseman John Sullivan. Second-team Patriot League faceoff specialist Will Coletti will also be back for the Black Knights.
“I feel like this team had so many challenges unique to them,” Alberici added. “I am confident that next year’s team will have challenges unique to them. Yes, I always think about next year and we will take a few days off and then get right back planning for the next season. There are a lot of quality players coming back but does not insure success.”