May 27, 2012

Lusby, Defense Lead Loyola to Final Four

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Live Blog Replay

NCAA Division I Men's Semifinals

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Top-seeded Loyola could hardly win a faceoff attempt, could not get its top goal-scorer going and could not mount a sustained run with one of the most explosive offenses in the sport.

Eric Lusby led Loyola with five goals and the Greyhounds defense held Notre Dame scoreless for two stretches over 20 minutes to advance to Monday's NCAA championship game.
© Kevin P. Tucker

But the Greyhounds had red-hot, fifth-year senior attackman Eric Lusby. They had a tenacious defense, led by sophomore goalie Jack Runkel and short-stick midfielder Josh Hawkins. And Loyola was firmly resolved to play one more game in this magical season, while No. 4 seed Notre Dame was doomed to pay the price for it.

Backed by a five-goal performance from Lusby and a defense that shut down the Fighting Irish for two stretches exceeding 20 minutes, Loyola was held to a season-low in scoring, yet still controlled most of a 7-5, NCAA tournament semifinal victory in front of 31,774 at Gillette Stadium.

The victory sends Loyola (17-1) to the NCAA championship game on Monday against unseeded Maryland, which routed Duke, 16-10 in Saturday's other semifinal. Loyola, which is making its second appearance in the NCAA final, will go after the first Division I title in school history.

It wasn't easy for the Greyhounds, even though they never trailed Notre Dame (13-3) and led in wire-to-wire fashion after Lusby scored his second goal to give Loyola a 2-1 lead with 3:21 left in the first quarter.

The Greyhounds wanted to play at fast, 40-shot pace, but were forced to play at Notre Dame's slower cadence, since Loyola senior J.P. Dalton won just one of 14 faceoff chances. They wanted to stretch Notre Dame's defense by getting out in transition, but had to grapple with the Irish's packed-in zone defense and first-team, All-American goalie John Kemp.

But Loyola did what it has done all spring. It adapted with its elastic roster and made huge plays. It started with Lusby, who blew up the Irish with his second, straight, five-goal showing of the playoffs. It continued with Runkel, who made a career-high 15 saves, including 11 in a stifling, second half.

"It shows the character in our locker room. They'll recognize the situation and play to it. We just did a good job of digging in. I think the players were more relaxed than the coaches," said Loyola head coach Charley Toomey, who played goalie for the 1990 Loyola team that lost to Syracuse in the Greyhounds' only other national title game appearance.

As for leading the Greyhounds back to the NCAA finals in his seventh season coaching at his alma mater, Toomey said, "It means everything. It's a special feeling. Steve Vaikness [Loyola assistant] and I roomed together on that team. We ride the bus together. All we've wanted is for the kids to have the same feeling we had 22 years ago."

Thanks to players such as Lusby, the left-handed gunslinger who has 13 goals and five assists and has produced at least a hat trick in all three tournament games, the Greyhounds are playing on the season's last day.

"I'm playing confident right now," Lusby said. "I see net and I shoot for net. I don't try to pick the corners. When you try to aim in an exact spot, that's when you start messing with your head. The past few games I've had a pretty good shooting percentage."

Coming on the heels of his 5-for-10 shooting in last week's 10-9 victory over Denver in the quarterfinals, Lusby was even better against Notre Dame, which got 13 saves from Kemp. Lusby burned the Irish on just eight shots, as the rest of the Greyhounds shot a collective, 2-for-20. That included an 0-for-7 showing from attackman Mike Sawyer.

With Loyola's defense hanging tough on a warm, muggy afternoon, Notre Dame had a miserable shooting day, after hitting 43 percent of its attempts in the tournament coming into Foxborough. The Irish, led by two goals from Westy Hopkins, shot just 5-for-28 and barely got anything going with their settled offense.

Guys such as Hawkins had something do with that. Besides his aggressive shadowing of Notre Dame midfielder Max Pfeifer – held scoreless after scoring three goals against Virginia last week – Hawkins gave the Greyhounds a lift on offense on a day when the Loyola rarely had a chance to show its fast break.

It came at an opportune time, after Notre Dame had erased a first-half, scoreless drought of 20:21 with back-to-back goals from Hopkins and Nicholas Beattie (off the ensuing faceoff) in a six-second span suddenly cut Loyola's lead to 4-3 with 2:04 left in the first half.

With about 30 seconds left in the half, the Greyhounds made a stop and regained possession, and Hawkins brought the ball across midfield, glanced at the clock winding down and went to work. He darted downfield, faked right, cut left and bounced a 14-yarder past Kemp with 2.2 seconds left to make it 5-3.

Lusby then essentially put the Irish away. First, he took a feed from Sawyer and buried a shot inside just 21 seconds into the second half. Three minutes later, Lusby showed his dodging ability by running past first-team All-American defender Kevin Randall and nailing an eight-yard shot down the left alley.

With Loyola up, 7-3, the Greyhounds would not score again, but Notre Dame was stumped, by a combination of shaky shooting and the presence of the 6-feet-3, 225-pound Runkel, who ate up many Irish shots with ease. His kick save on a shot in close by Will Corrigan with about six minutes to go proved huge, as it preserved Loyola's 7-5 lead.

"The first save kind of got me into a rhythm," Runkel said. "My defense was giving me shots to see a very clear line from the shooter. So any goalie, I think, would gobble up those saves, and it's a credit to my defense because they really helped me out and let me see shots I wanted to see."

"[Loyola] really got out and pressed us when we were trying to dodge," said Notre Dame attackman Sean Rogers, who had one goal in the face of strong coverage by Dylan Grimm. "I think our biggest problem was we didn't shoot well. The goalie played well. He made a couple of big saves down the stretch and that really hurt us. But we didn't shoot in the right spots."


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