Virginia Rides Stellar Goalie Play to Make Second Straight NCAA Final


EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Lars Tiffany insists the Alex Rode who has established a reputation as an exceptional big-game goalie in the last two NCAA tournaments is every bit the quality netminder during Virginia’s practices each week.

That said, Tiffany and the fourth-seeded Cavaliers have no complaints about the senior’s penchant for starring on the final weekend of the season.

Rode made 15 saves and Virginia’s defense made multiple stands in the final three minutes, clinching the Cavaliers’ spot in the national title game with a 12-11 victory over top-seeded North Carolina at Rentschler Field.

“When everyone’s watching, he steps up even bigger, doesn’t he?” Tiffany said. “On the biggest stage, this is Alex Rode’s platform.”

Rode, the most outstanding player of the 2019 tournament, could become the first Virginia goalie to start on multiple NCAA champions when the Cavaliers (13-4) meet either second-seeded Duke or third-seeded Maryland in Monday’s title game.

Virginia’s Petey LaSalla won 15 of 27 faceoffs, proving especially vital in a dominant second half. Connor Shellenberger, fresh off a six-goal outing against Georgetown in the quarterfinals, assumed a more familiar role as a distributor. He had two goals and four assists to lead the Cavaliers’ offense.

Virginia will play in consecutive NCAA finals for the first time in program history.

William Perry scored five goals and Tewaaraton finalist Chris Gray had three goals and two assists for the Tar Heels (13-3), who suffered two of their three losses this season to Virginia.

“These guys laid it all on the line and gave us everything they had throughout the year and they certainly did here when the chips were down 9-4 at halftime,” coach Joe Breschi said. “They weren’t rattled. They didn’t flinch. They just came out and played the way we’ve played all year. It gave us a chance to win. We just ran out of time.”

Indeed, the difference — besides Rode — was Virginia’s thorough control of the second quarter. The Cavaliers trailed 4-3, but ripped off the final six goals of the quarter. LaSalla was 9-for-9 in the period, and at one point Virginia scored four goals in a little more than two minutes when the Tar Heels never touched the ball.

The last of those goals was Peter Garno’s bullet that splashed into the net, a reminder of the damp and unseasonably cold conditions. But they didn’t hurt Virginia, which pushed its lead to five by halftime.

Nonetheless, the Cavaliers were well aware of the Tar Heels’ potency from their two previous meetings.

“You can’t expect a team like that to lay down,” Shellenberger said. “We kind of had to keep our foot on the pedal.”

North Carolina pulled within 10-8 late in the third quarter, a hint that things could become interesting. But Rode snared a Gray shot on an extra-man opportunity, and Payton Cormier scored a minute later to re-establish some breathing room.

Virginia prevented North Carolina from cashing in on any of its five man-up opportunities.

“Alex Rode and our team defense and especially our man-down [defense] stepped up to ensure Carolina didn’t get goals in bunches like we got the goals in bunches in that second quarter,” Tiffany said.

But Carolina did have a chance to get the game to overtime. After Gray scored once and Perry collected two goals in the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels had several chances to tie. The last one came out of a timeout with 20 seconds to go.

Lance Tillman initiated the play, but North Carolina eventually got the ball to Gray. Virginia was committed to pressing out and making the Tar Heels as uncomfortable as possible, even if it meant the unorthodox situation of letting short stick Chris Merle switch onto Gray on a pick rather than doing everything to keep Cade Saustad on him.

Merle badgered Gray just enough on that possession to disrupt the Tar Heels’ offensive flow, and Gray’s pass into the interior was knocked down by Cole Kastner, allowing time to expire without Rode even seeing a shot.

“A team like North Carolina is so strong, and our defensemen did such a great job not to let them get a shot off in 20 seconds,” Rode said. “It’s really a testament to how good those guys played in front of me.”

Even as the Tar Heels’ season ended, they showed the same strengths they had for much of the year. Their riding was exceptional, especially in the second half when they heavily committed to a 10-man ride. Virginia was just 16 of 23 on clears, and committed eight of its 22 turnovers in the fourth quarter.

Both Gray and Perry were steady factors throughout the day, and faceoff man Zac Tucci bounced back to finish 12 of 24 on the day after the rough second quarter. It was a performance as unrelenting as North Carolina was throughout the season.

“It was pretty incredible the way we were able to rally back and cut the deficit down,” Gray said. “There was no quit in our team and that was the most important part. That’s something for us to be proud of.”

Ultimately, the second-quarter possession imbalance was one of the crucial elements of Virginia’s victory. So was Rode, the established postseason star who has led the Cavaliers to seven consecutive NCAA tournament victories in his own understated way.

“I don’t know if it’s anything about this tournament or anything in general,” Rode said. “I just think this tournament gets everyone excited, and our defense and our offense are playing so well. I think our team is playing well in this tournament and it allows me to see easy shots and have an OK day.”

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