With Yale having punched their ticket, the other half of the Ivy tournament took the field on Friday night. Penn and Princeton battled closely throughout. The marquis matchup of Sam Handley, the Penn midfielder with the strength and agility to overpower anyone, and the Princeton defense charged with finding ways to slow him down. On the other end, Princeton attackman Coulter Mackesy has emerged as one of the bright young stars in lacrosse. It was win or go home for Princeton, but in the end, that was nothing new.
“I think this group has been playing with that pressure for a couple weeks We didn’t handle our out of conference early in the season. So that put pressure on us to get better, win Ivy League games, earn the opportunity to play in this tournament which we haven’t had in the past, and then anything can happen when you get here,” said Princeton Head Coach Matt Madalon.
“You look at our game last year, it was 21-20, the opposite of this. But this game, and six weeks ago when we played, it was a defensive battle. This week, they came out on top,” said Penn Head Coach Mike Murphy.
In the end, it was a goalie battle, as both teams struggled to solve the opposing netminder. The score stayed low through three quarters. A flurry in the fourth opened scoring a bit, but the goalies were the story.
Mike Gianforcaro’s spectacular night was fitting. It came on the day that an all time great goalie at Princeton, Cookie Krongard.
“It was a big game. The passing of former Princeton goalie Cookie Krongard recently, that was big to play for. Coach told us he’d be watching over us from the crease to the rest of the field. So everyone had a little extra motivation and we were believing that we could go out and keep winning,” said Gianforcaro.
Penn got the scoring started early, with goals from Hugh Millane and Cam Rubin. Millane’s goal came on extra man following a Princeton offside call. The Tigers would answer with a three goal run, featuring goals from Mackesy, Christian Ronda, and Jake Stevens. Teams would be scoreless for the remaining seven minutes of the first, as goalies traded saves. Emmett Carroll had five saves in the first, keeping the Quakers within striking distance.
In the second, more trading of possessions that ended scoreless, as Gianforcaro and Carroll added a few more saves. Both teams created good opportunities with Handley freeing his hands from range or the Penn defense causing turnovers, but neither team could find the twine. With 5:35 left, the drought finally ended when Ben Smith ripped a low to high rocket that went bar down and in, knotting the score at three. The goal became the subject of some controversy, as it was difficult to tell if it crossed the line and went in. Without instant replay, officials couldn’t change the call either way, and the goal stayed on the board. With just over a minute left, Mackesy answered for Princeton on a nice feed from Alex Vardaro to put the Tigers back in front by one at the half.
“We were talking about doing a better job moving off ball to create more space for dodgers, which we didn’t do a great job of all night. Credit to Princeton, they were planning to not slide, but make us beat them, and we didn’t do a great job of it,” said Murphy.
Penn controlled the faceoffs in the first half, but ground balls were even. Princeton outshot Penn, and the Quakers committed more turnovers, but it felt like the second half was going to be a rock fight.
“That’s two defensive battles. I think that the offensive units struggled to get going. They were just well defended. The game pans from both Penn and Princeton were good, it just came down to crunch time and guys operating under pressure to make individual plays,” said Madalon.
Princeton had the opening possession of the second half, and Carroll picked up where he left off with a nice save on a Ronda question mark. Keepers went save for save, as the third quarter was a goalie show. As much as the first semifinal was a shootout, the second was a defensive struggle.
The goalie play was extraordinary. Gianforcaro made seven saves in the third quarter alone. Madalon, a former goalie himself, said he’d never been in a zone like that before. “Not like that one. That one was different,” he said.
Carroll was there to match him on the other end, making five stops of his own. Tynan Walsh scored with 3.7 seconds left in the quarter, the only goal of the frame, to tie the score at four apiece. It was a back and forth battled that Gianforcaro acknowledged as challenging after the game.
“Emmett is world class. He played great tonight. When you make a save, you push transition, then you see him make an unbelievable save, you think alright, I gotta make another one. I’ve worked with a number of goalie coaches, and for it’s about seeing the ball, keeping that next play in front of you, and not worrying about the score,” he said.
Going to the 4th, the battle to put one by the goalie continued. It was Ronda who did it first, and with gusto. On a nice roll back from up top free his hands, a ripped a shot that bounced past Carroll and went bar down. Sam Handley would answer, as it looked like the goals would start to flow. Handley carried his man to an invert, blowing by him, and firing an overhand shot past Gianforcaro to tie the game at five. Handley would move to attack for much of the second half in an effort to create more pressure on the Princeton defense.
“That was in response to them. It was to allow us to put pressure on the cage in the early offense. He can win his matchup, he’s the one guy they were sliding to. I wish we could have gotten going a little earlier, we just never really got into a rhythm offensively,” said Murphy.
With nine minutes left, a failed Penn clear turned into a man up opportunity, when Piper Bond was whistled for delay of game. Jake Stevens got a nice feed in front from Weston Carpenter, and he had enough time to throw a fake at Carroll to move him before putting git home, tying the game again at six.
A minute later, Penn went to the man up, following a trip call. Penn got two good looks, but the first missed the cage, and Gianforcaro stopped the second. Princeton would clear, and on the other end, Vardaro got a spot-on feed inside from Sean Cameron, and was able to beat Carroll low to give Princeton a one goal lead. Cameron kept the hot hand on the ensuing possession, cooking his man with dodge down the alley, open his hips, kept his stick up field, and went low to high to beat Carroll and give Princeton a two goal lead.
With just over four minutes left and the defensives still battling hard, Penn needed a spark. And Handley delivered. Playing as an attackman, Handley muscled his way from X to his right, getting above the goal line, turning, and shooting off his man’s hip to the low far corner to bring Penn back within one.
Princeton was able to answer with a two man game from the lefty wing. Christian Ronda and Lukas Stanat ran a pick and slip, with Ronda springing free upfield for a step down shot. Princeton pushed their lead back to 9-7.
A turnover by Penn with just over two minutes left was scooped up by Princeton, who cleared and began to kill clock. While trying to force a turnover, Carroll took a push penalty, giving Princeton 30 seconds of man up to take the clock down. Penn set up a double with an empty net while man down, leaving one player open. Princeton ran most of the penalty off before Madalon called a timeout with one minute left in the game and 39 seconds on the shot clock, protecting a two goal lead.
Princeton ran the rest of the clock down before dumping the ball for a shot clock violation. Penn cleared quickly, and Ben Smith fired a shot past Gianforcaro with 13 seconds left to play and Penn trailing by one.
Princeton won the ensuing faceoff and was able to kill the remaining time, keeping their season alive with a 9-8 win. A date with Yale for the Ivy Championship is set for Sunday at noon on ESPN2.