Navy 8, Princeton 7
-- Graham Gill was the only Navy player who did not race onto the field immediately following the team's 8-7 victory over Princeton in an NCAA men's lacrosse tournament semifinal before a record crowd of 46,923 at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday.
Gill, a junior midfielder, had a chance to clinch the game with 35 seconds left, but his shot into an empty net hit the pipe and bounced away. Princeton gained possession, but a five-yard shot in the final seconds was saved by sophomore goalkeeper Matt Russell.
As the game ended, and as his teammates raced around him onto the field, Gill stopped, put both his hands to his head and looked toward the sky.
"I just tried to run, get out in front of the goal so the goal was an option," Gill said. "I saw the goalie coming across, and I saw there was only 30 seconds left. I switched hands to shoot at the goal and then hit the pipe. I mean, my heart just sank."
He and the rest of the Midshipmen, however, will play for the school's first national championship in any sport in 40 years. Navy (15-2) faces No. 4 Syracuse at 2:30 p.m. Monday. Syracuse defeated No. 1 Johns Hopkins, 15-9, in the second semifinal.
Gill had scored the winning goals against Cornell last weekend and against then-No. 1 Maryland in April.
"When that shot hit the pipe, I thought, 'Wow,' " Navy Coach Richie Meade said. "I started to get a little leery."
But Princeton (11-4) still had work to do following the miss. Russell had only one save in the first half and only four entering the final seconds.
The Tigers got the ball into their offensive end, and freshman Peter Trombino shot from just outside the crease.
Russell made the save, turned around to grab the ball in mid-air and looked at the clock in the same motion. When he saw three seconds remained, he threw the ball the length of the field and Navy had its victory.
"I thought I should have played a lot better," Russell said. "I said to myself at halftime, 'You know this is why you're here. You've got to turn it on.' "
Junior Mac Bryson had three goals and senior Ryan Boyle, the two-time Ivy League player of the year, added a goal and three assists. Gill and senior Ben Bailey each had two goals, and junior Chris Pieczonka won 11 of 15 faceoffs. He has won 22 of 26 in the past two games.
Navy's win came in circumstances that normally favor Princeton. The Tigers were 19-3 in playoff games decided by two goals or less under Coach Bill Tierney. That included an 8-7 overtime victory over Maryland last week in which a Maryland player missed a shot into an open goal with less than a minute to play. Princeton gained possession and Boyle scored the tying goal in the final seconds.
"We had very few opportunities," Tierney said. "We were not getting very many fast breaks."
Navy was prepared for a close game after a pregame talk from Bill Belichick, the head coach of the two-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
Belichick, who watched the game from the Navy sideline, grew up in Annapolis and played lacrosse in high school and college. His father, Steve, was a longtime assistant football coach at Navy.
Belichick told the team that regular season results would not matter, that the team that worked the hardest would win the game.
"It was very inspirational," Meade said.
Navy also was helped by a shot that hit the pipe. The Midshipmen led 7-6 when Princeton junior Jason Doneger, the team's leading goal scorer, had a close shot that got past Russell but hit the pipe and bounced out with 8 minutes 41 seconds left to play.
Senior defender Bucky Morris picked up the groundball, crossed midfield and passed quickly to sophomore Ian Dingman. Dingman then found sophomore Jon Birsner, who scored on a shot from the crease for an 8-6 lead. The sequence from Doneger's miss to the goal took eight seconds.
Princeton closed to 8-7 following a goal by Trombino with 4:59 left. The Tigers nearly tied the game with 2:15 left without taking a shot. A clearing pass by Navy senior defender Mitch Hendler eluded Russell and trickled toward the goal. Russell and Boyle raced for the ball, and eventually it went into the net but the goal was disallowed because Boyle was in the crease.
In the second semifinal, Syracuse upset Johns Hopkins (13-2) largely because of a career-high five goals from Kevin Dougherty and a career-high four goals from Brian Nee.
The Blue Jays led 8-7 following a goal by sophomore Greg Peyser with 4:36 left in the third quarter. But the Orange ended the quarter with four straight goals for an 11-8 lead. Syracuse then opened the fourth quarter with two more goals. The six goals came on eight shots.
Meantime, Hopkins took only one shot in that span. Junior Matt Rewkowski had three goals for Hopkins, which last won a title in 1987.
Navy, which won the men's soccer national championship in 1964, will be playing for its first NCAA lacrosse title.
"I will never forget that shot," Gill said. "But my teammates kept coming up to me and telling me I had to take it, the net was open. That's the way it is with this team."