PHILADELPHIA — The Virginia men’s lacrosse team is one win away from completing a years-long program revival, and it came with no small measure of drama. The Cavaliers will return to the national championship game after sophomore attack Ian Laviano scored in double overtime to secure a 13-12 semifinal win over Duke on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Virginia trailed by four goals midway through the third period.
The victory put the third-seeded Cavaliers (16-3), long a perennial power, back in the title game for the first time in seven years. They will meet defending champion Yale, which knocked off No. 1 overall seed Penn State in the other semifinal, 21-17.
The Cavaliers’ fall was steep — they had gone winless in ACC games for three straight years and endured losing seasons in 2013 and 2016 after appearing in 13 Final Fours from 1994 to 2011. Following the 2016 season, they let go of Hall of Fame Coach Dom Starsia, who had won four NCAA championships, and brought in Lars Tiffany, hoping to return to a place among lacrosse elites.
“I’m incredibly proud of these men,” said Tiffany, in his third season. “Teams I coach, we’re going to pursue to be the best team in the ride and the best groundball team. Those two go hand in hand.”
Laviano’s goal, his fourth of the afternoon, came from right in front of the crease. Tiffany raised his arms and hugged his coaching staff. His players charged toward the center of the field. A few rows of orange towels went up in the air.
Virginia committed 18 turnovers, many of them unforced, to Duke’s nine. But the Cavaliers commanded the groundball game, 44-36, and won a number of 50-50 scrums, including a key pickup late in the game by senior midfielder Ryan Conrad, who scored Virginia’s first two goals.
A week after denying Maryland its sixth straight trip to the Final Four, Virginia erased a deficit that lasted until the final moments. Early, the Cavaliers piled up unforced turnovers, playing in a tentative style and throwing away several passes out of bounds.
“I wish we could make it easier on ourselves and play well all four quarters,” said Conrad, whose junior year in 2018 was cut short because of injury.
Duke (13-4), whose last national titles came back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, had a three-goal lead at halftime that swelled to four. But Virginia faceoff specialist Petey LaSalla then put his imprint on the game, winning the final eight faceoffs and helping the Cavaliers trim their deficit to one entering the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers outscored the Blue Devils 5-4 in the final regulation period to set up overtime, and the Cavaliers improved to 5-0 in games that have gone beyond regulation.
The game-winner Saturday was the result of a dive-and-dish initiated by Matt Moore, who had two goals and two assists. Moore was covered, but he had done enough dodging to free up Laviano, camped right near the crease. Moore found him, and Laviano sent the ball toward the back of the net.
But that sort of goal was not the way Virginia soared back. The Cavaliers entered the break trailing 5-2, stymied by a Blue Devils defense that packed in tight to prevent close shots. Virginia tried to feed the crease early, a plan that backfired — until a halftime adjustment ignited the Cavaliers’ offense for five goals in each of the last two quarters.
“We told them we need to take some outside shots,” said Tiffany, the ACC coach of the year. “When we dive up a side, put a shooter in front of the feeder, as opposed to throwing balls through or over the defense. We needed to put Dox [Aitken] and Conrad in positions to take outside shots and make the Duke defense step out a bit. We were struggling and we had to get them out of that tight defense.”
Virginia has played with a remarkable ability to stay in games. The Cavaliers have come back from sizable deficits in wins against Notre Dame (five-goal deficit), Brown (four), Syracuse (four) and, last weekend, Maryland (five). The wins have given them an identity of a team that can score in bunches.
The win snapped a three-game losing streak to Duke and added to the run of recent history these Cavaliers have set about changing. When they retreated to the locker room Saturday afternoon, one more challenge remained.