Defensive double teams are one of the pillars on which Bill Tierney built his dynasty, but a new strategy was in order after top-seeded Syracuse ripped the visiting Tigers by six goals two months ago. Princeton ditched some of its defensive slide packages in yesterday's NCAA men's tournament final, a move that set up a 10-9 overtime conquest of the Orangemen in front of 21,286 at Rutgers Stadium.
B. J. Prager, a junior attackman who missed last year's tournament with a knee injury, ended this one 3:19 into sudden death on a feed from Ryan Boyle, a freshman from Gilman. It gave Tierney his sixth title in the past 10 seasons, equaling the mark established by former Syracuse coach Roy Simmons.
"To be honest, if we played that team 10 times, they would win seven or eight," said Tierney, whose Tigers had dropped their four previous meetings with the Orangemen.
Princeton (14-1) never trailed yesterday, and other than allowing a four-goal outburst in the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, it held Syracuse (13-3) in check. After the Orangemen toyed with Notre Dame and the Tigers struggled to hold off Towson in the semis, Tierney went back to the drawing board. He scheduled a Sunday night practice to implement some changes, but then his son Trevor, the Tigers' goalie, and defenseman Ryan Mollett said that wasn't necessary.
"We were going to go back to Princeton last [Sunday] night and practice it," said Mollett, the All-American from Boys' Latin. "Trevor and I went to Coach and said, 'We're older; tell us what you want and we'll do it. We don't need to practice.' He said it's our team. We met last night at 9, and talked about our assignments.
"We weren't going to slide; we were going to play one-on-one as much as possible. We slid a lot up at the Carrier Dome, and all we did was create offense for Syracuse. We couldn't go to our normal slide package. Towson was taking advantage of it, and Syracuse took advantage of it the last three times we played. We changed the way we played lacrosse today."
Syracuse's starting attack didn't score a goal until the 48th minute, when Princeton had an 8-4 lead.
Scott Farrell got some help on Mike Springer, who erupted for six goals in the semifinals, but Mollett was usually on his own against Liam Banks, the Most Valuable Player last year when Syracuse ripped Princeton in the final. Ryan Powell, another Orangeman, was actually the best player in the college game in 2000, when he abused then-Tigers freshman Damien Davis. This time the sophomore from Gilman matched up with the third Powell brother, Michael.
Princeton's patience lulled Syracuse to sleep, as the second seed built a 4-0 lead after 17 minutes. The gap was still four goals when the Orangemen adjusted and went back to "The Future," as young Powell is known in upstate New York. He beat Mollett on a switch to start a four-goal run that drew Syracuse even at 8-8 with 7:40 left.
Prager's extra-man goal more than a minute later returned the lead to Princeton, and a couple of Davis checks kept Syracuse off the board until the final minute. The Orangemen called timeout with 26 seconds left. They had already begun to isolate Powell on the right wing. He blew by Davis and bounced a shot past Tierney with 16 seconds remaining to force the first overtime championship game since 1996.
Princeton won that one, too, holding off Virginia, and this time it never allowed Syracuse a shot. Matt Bailer, who nearly broke even against Chris Cercy, the best faceoff man in college, won the draw. Matt Striebel forced a shot for the Tigers, and the Orangemen lost possession with 1:19 left, when Mollett checked Powell from behind on the sideline and held his breath.
"I was a little worried that I might be called for a penalty," Mollett said.
"I felt I got tripped," Powell said.
ESPN had hustled his brothers, Ryan and Casey, down from the stands, but that celebratory interview was scrapped after no foul was called and Princeton gained possession. A Chris Harrington pick freed Boyle, Princeton's best feeder, behind the cage. Boyle said that Prager found an opening when a couple of Syracuse midfielders got caught in a switch, and it was over.
It was the fourth NCAA final won in overtime by Princeton, and its 10th straight success in a one-goal game. The Tigers beat Loyola, 8-7, in the quarterfinals. They wasted a four-goal lead on Towson in the semis, but made enough plays to win, 12-11. With one son in the goal, and another, Brendan, a reserve attackman for Princeton, it was as sweet as any win Tierney has ever experienced.
"You win three one-goal games, that's not about coaching," Tierney said. "That's about character."
Princeton 3 2 3 1 1 - 10
Syracuse 0 3 1 5 0 - 9
Goals: P-Prager 4, Dumont 2, Striebel 2, Daly, Torti; S-Powell 2, Hogan 2, Solliday 2, Wright 2, Coffman. Assists: P-Boyle 3, Striebel 2, Clark; S-Powell 2, Wright 2, Banks, Hardy. Saves: P-Tierney 14; S-Mulligan 14.