Lacrosse
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Best Weekend in Lacrosse: 2021 Final Four Preview

I am a sucker for underdogs and upsets, but a Final Four with the four top-seeded teams is going to be awesome. Duke, UNC, Maryland, and UVA are the blue bloods of college lacrosse, and like an Alabama or Clemson football team, they consistently attract the top recruits out of high school. The quarterfinal games were awesome. We got three overtime games, and even though I predicted Georgetown to beat UVA, it was a great weekend for college lacrosse. The heroes of the weekend were Connor McCarthy of UNC, Joe Robertson of Duke, and Anthony Demaio of Maryland, who all scored the overtime game-winner for their respective teams. This year’s Final Four is great for many reasons. There is no parody, no underdogs, and no newcomers, just four titans of the sport battling to be crowned champion on Memorial Day.

#1 North Carolina (13-2) vs #4 Virginia (12-4)

Matchup History: These teams have met 80 times, with Virginia leading the series 52-28, including two regular-season matchups in 2021. UNC won the first matchup by a score of 16-13. A couple of weeks later, Virginia got its revenge by a score of 18-16. These two teams have not met in the postseason since 1994. In that quarterfinal game, Virginia got the victory 12-10 over UNC. 

Why UNC: UNC squeaked out the overtime win versus Rutgers in the quarterfinals. Although Connor McCarthy scored the goal, the play of the game was when Chris Gray made a hustle play and caused a turnover in overtime, ultimately leading to the goal for UNC. The unsung hero for the Tar Heels was Lance Tillman. Tillman scored four crucial goals, which was one less than his season total coming into the game. Chris Gray, although he had three assists, did not score a goal for the first time all season. I would not panic if I were a UNC fan as I fully expect Gray to get back in the scoring column against UVA. UNC’s midfield has to be big in six on six sets. Every team can score in transition, but can you consistently score in settled situations. Goalie Colin Krieg has proven to be a top-tier net-minder in the country, and in two tournament games, he has 25 saves and has let up 16 goals. If Krieg gets hot and Will Bowen and this defense slow down the UVA offense, the Tar Heels will be on their way to the championship.

Why UVA: I think I owe this Virginia team an apology for picking them to lose to Georgetown. They did quite the opposite, shutting down the Hoyas’ offense on their way to a 14-3 victory. Connor Shellenberger might be the most complete attackman in the country. The kid is a natural-born scorer and can get to the goal whenever he wants. He got whatever he wanted against Georgetown by scoring six goals and adding an assist. Shellenberger was easily the best player on the field. I am very excited about the matchup of Shellenberger versus Bowen of UNC. Matt Moore and Dox Aitken each scored a goal, but UVA needs complementary scoring around Shellenberger and Ian Laviano if they want to keep up with the Tar Heels offense. FOGO Petey LaSalla was huge in the win over Georgetown. When Hoyas FOGO James Reilly went down in the first quarter, LaSalla dominated possessions, ultimately putting the game away in the first half. LaSalla will battle the UNC face-off duo between Zach Tucci and Andrew Tyeryar. This game could be decided at the face-off dot, and I expect LaSalla to dominate this matchup.

Outcome: UVA 12-UNC 10. I made the mistake last week picking against UVA and they made me look stupid. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice. If UVA can get some midfield production coupled with Shellenberger’s goal-scoring, they should be on their way to the championship. Gray will have a good game, but where are the other goals going to come from, Justin Anderson? Will Perry? Nicky Solomon?

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#2 Duke (14-2) vs #3 Maryland (14-0)

Matchup History: These two teams have an extensive history. This will be the 84th meeting between these two teams. Maryland owns a record of 62-21 over Duke. This will be the 4th semifinal matchup between the Blue Devils and Terrapins since 2011. It just goes to show how consistently dominant these two teams have been. The last postseason matchup between these two teams was in 2018. Duke secured the 13-8 win over Maryland on its way to the championship game.

Why Duke: Is Joe Robertson the most clutch player in lacrosse? I cannot remember a player with this many game-winning goals. Robertson’s recorded his third overtime game-winning goal this season against Loyola, not to mention that two years ago he scored the game-winner to send Duke to the Final Four in 2018. The kid has ice in his veins, no other way to describe it. Robertson, Michael Sowers, and Brennan O’Neill combined for 13 points against Loyola. While this is great, Duke’s entire midfield scored only two goals coming from Brian Smyth and Aidan Danenza. Duke’s attack will put up points, but can they get production from guys like Nakeie Montgomery, Owen Caputo, and Dyson Williams. These two teams have elite attack units but can the midfield units step up. Goalie Mike Adler has been solid in net all season for the Blue Devils. Adler has a save percentage of 54% and could be the deciding factor in a Duke win.

Why Maryland: Like I said last week, Jared Bernhardt is the best player in college lacrosse. Last weekend against Notre Dame, Bernhardt drew first-team All-American and the Irish’s top defenseman in Jack Kielty. Bernhardt dominated this matchup going for five goals, and essentially did whatever he wanted. Logan Wisnauskas also tallied a hat trick and an assist. Although Bernhardt and Wisnauskas combined for eight of the 14 Maryland goals, five other guys scored a goal. This is a great sign for Maryland, as the scoring burden did not fall completely on Bernhardt. Complimentary scoring is crucial to winning games in May. I’m interested in watching the matchup at the face-off dot between Maryland’s Justin Shockey versus Duke’s Jake Naso. The key to closing out lacrosse games is possessions, and that starts with face-offs. If Shockey or Naso has a big game, their respective will have the best chance to win.

Outcome: Maryland 14-Duke 12. I like Maryland a lot. They have the best player on the field in Jared Bernhardt and have complementary scoring around the Tewaaraton Finalist. Duke has proven that they rely on their attack unit in Sowers, Robertson, and O’Neill, and if they start slow, this could get ugly for the Blue Devils. Duke may have the better FOGO in Naso and goalie in Adler, but I do not think their defense can slow down this Maryland offense. Maryland advances to championship Monday.

Both semi-final games will be played on Saturday in Hartford, CT. UNC vs UVA starts at 12pm followed by Duke vs Maryland at 2:30 pm. The championship game will be played Monday on Memorial Day at 1 pm.

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