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No. 3 seed Maryland men’s lacrosse NCAA Tournament preview: National Championship vs. No. 4 Virginia

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The Terps have just one game lying between them and the ultimate prize.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

14 weeks, 100 days, 2,400 hours, 15 straight wins. One more to go.

Championship Monday is finally here and as Maryland men’s lacrosse has demonstrated throughout the postseason, it isn’t afraid of the moment. But Virginia isn’t either. The Cavaliers’ poise is especially evident after their dismantling of top-seeded North Carolina.

For this year’s title match, two of the tournament’s alleged underdogs will be facing off in a contest that could give Maryland its first perfect season of the century or mark the beginning of a dynasty for Virginia.

Monday’s game will be televised on ESPN2 and is set to start at 1 p.m.

Virginia Cavaliers (13-4) (2-4 ACC)

Head coach Lars Tiffany has made the most of his five years with the men’s lacrosse program, regularly maintaining the Cavaliers reputation as a perennial powerhouse. Tiffany helped guide the Cavaliers to multiple statistically proficient campaigns before powering Virginia to a NCAA title game appearance in 2019.

In his first season, the Cavaliers finished No. 1 in the ACC and were No. 3 in the nation in goals per game (14.40), assists per game (9.13) and points per game (23.53). In 2018, Virginia was top ten nationally in assists, points per game and scoring offense. Aside from a 13-9 title game victory over Yale, 2019 marked Virginia’s third straight year as the nation’s best ground ball team (41.55 per game). The Cavaliers also tied a program record with 17 wins in 2019, ranking top ten nationally in scoring offense(14.10), assists per game (8.60) and points per game (22.70) once again.

In year five with Virginia and his fourth full season, Tiffany returns to the title game for the second time, this time with the lower seeded team and the less-heralded lacrosse program. Tiffany helped lead Virginia to a 10-win regular season, but the Cavaliers finished fourth in the ACC. Virginia has snapped into form as of late, displaying its length on the defensive side of the field and complementing their impressive offense.

Players to watch

Connor Shellenberger, freshman attackman, 6-foot-1, 195 lbs, No. 1. The former No. 1 recruit has enjoyed success in the midfield and at the attack as a dynamic scorer. Shellenberger leads the team in points with 33 goals and 40 assists. His exceptional dodging ability and his blistering shot headline his offensive talent

Matt Moore, senior attackman, 6-foot-1, 200 lbs, No. 5. Moore helped lead the offense in 2019 and took charge on the offensive side of the ball throughout Virginia’s postseason run. That year he paced the offense with 46 goals and 43 assists. Now, though Shellenberger has taken more of a prominent role, Moore serves as a valuable second option and veteran leader with the second highest point total on the roster with 61 (29 goals, 32 assists). The arm injury he sustained in the tournament semifinal against North Carolina hampered his ability late in the contest and may be a concern heading into the title match on Monday.

Petey LaSalla, junior faceoff, 5-foot-7, 185 lbs, No. 23. LaSalla was another integral factor to much of Virginia’s dominance in 2019 and 2021. His freshman season in 2019 was one of the best ever for the program. He went 6-for-6 in overtime faceoffs, led the ACC with ground balls (216) and was number two in the ACC with a .587 winning percentage.

LaSalla improved tremendously in his junior year with a .628 winning percentage, 256 wins (NCAA-best) and 126 ground balls.

Strength

Rangy defense. It took them some time but, the Cavaliers have emerged as a noteworthy defending team. They began their postseason defensive campaign with a clinic to dispatch Georgetown, holding the Hoyas to just three points and their Tewaaraton award finalist, attacker Jake Carraway, to just one assist.

Georgetown head coach Kevin Warne drew a comparison to Jurassic Park when asked about the defensive performance. Referring to the defense as “a bunch of velociraptors running around in front of the goal.”

The lanky Virginia defense continued to dominate against a more impressive offense of North Carolina, the best offense in the nation in some regards. It silenced Tewaaraton finalist, attacker Chris Gray, allowing just three goals on 14 shots and helped ice the game in the final possession. Their tall, rangy defenders clog passing lanes and force incredibly tough shots. With defenders as tall as 6-foot-7, it’ll be unlike anything Maryland has seen in quite some time.

Weakness

Youth. Though this team isn’t too far removed from 2019, it’s far from the same roster. They’re bringing back veterans from every position but still have athletes who’ve never been on a stage of this caliber. With the veteran talent; Moore, LaSalla, goalie Alex Rode and others, the inexperience may not be that large of an issue, especially with the confidence boost the win over the Tar Heels must have given the No. 4 ranked squad.

Three things to watch

1. Will Virginia be able to stop Jared Bernhardt? After holding two of the best scoring Tewaaraton finalists to a combined three goals, Virginia will have a chance to challenge the cream of the crop in Bernhardt. Not only has he proved to be unguardable out of the conference, scoring at least five goals in every game so far, he’s done so against some of the best defenses of the nation, equipped with game plans designed to slow down the Tewaaraton frontrunner.

The biggest question for the title game will be whether or not Virginia’s long defense will be enough to force Bernhardt to at least flinch. Stopping Bernhardt is the first step to beat Maryland, but the Terps leading scorer seemingly has no interest in being stopped.

2. Who will lead the scoring effort for the Cavs? With how Moore was slowed down significantly towards the end of the contest against North Carolina due to his arm injury, there’s a very real possibility Shellenberger will be asked to take on a more enforcing role once more. If that’s the case, will it be enough to combat Maryland’s defensive line? Who will help aid his scoring efforts? Will attacker Payton Cormier be able to continue his success from the semifinal round?

3. Can the Terps continue success at the faceoff X? Maryland has been hardened by the relentless faceoff talent that the Big Ten had to offer and, apart from the tough afternoon against Notre Dame, has had great success in the postseason — in the NCAA and Big Ten tournament. FOGO specialist Justin Shockey will need to have a huge afternoon against LaSalla and Maryland will have to be tough off the ground as well. With how effective the Cavaliers are at scooping ground balls, the Terps will have to battle for possessions.