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Syracuse held onto a tight, three-goal lead heading into the fourth quarter against Princeton. It was a position the team was in against Fairfield in the first round. The Orange conceded five goals in the final quarter, narrowly beating the Stags 12-11. But against the Tigers, Syracuse started to make saves and quickly turn possessions into goals.
Princeton’s Katie Mulham charged into the 8-meter and fired a bounce shot from the left side of the arc. But SU goalie Kimber Hower, who was pulled in the previous game’s fourth quarter, made the save as the ball fell into her stick.
As she typically does, Hower sent a long pass down the right side. Hallie Simkins received the pass and the ball eventually got down to attacker Meaghan Tyrrell. The Tigers were caught off guard by the quickness of the Orange’s transition and Meaghan had open space in front of the net and scored easily.
This hasn’t been something Syracuse (15-5, 6-2 ACC) was doing against Farifield, Virginia or Boston College over the last month. But in a 13-9 second-round win over Princeton (15-4, 7-0 Ivy League), the backline and Hower improved immensely, allowing the fewest goals in over a month. According to Lacrosse Reference, SU had its best adjusted defensive efficiency since the win over Cornell a month prior. The Orange went a perfect 24-for-24 on clears and allowed only two free-position goals, while Hower made 11 saves.
“We knew (Syracuse) had a lot of different sets that they could throw at us,” Princeton’s Kyla Sears said. “I think they communicated well and they came out with the hotter hands. It was a good battle within the (8-meter).”
In the prior week of practice before the NCAA Tournament, the defense got much praise from Treanor and Syracuse players. For Sarah Cooper, it felt like the backline worked to build on struggles from the entire week. This culminated in success in half-field games against the attacking unit. In games against attackers like Meaghan and Emily Hawryschuk, the defense was winning.
“We were definitely communicating well,” Cooper said following last week’s practice. “We’re getting our sides there and we’re putting things together that we’ve been working on in practice all week.”
But in the first quarter, the defense looked like it was a step behind the Princeton offense. The Tigers started the game with a 3-0 run. From the top of the 8-meter, Kari Buonanno cut to the left side of the arc, found a lane and scored easily to open the game. At the beginning of the second quarter, Buonanno added to Princeton’s lead with a free-position goal, making the score 4-1.
But after that play, the Orange excelled at stopping free positions, which Cooper mentioned that was a factor in SU’s ACC Tournament upset loss to Virginia. Four minutes after her first goal, Buonanno had another free-position attempt. This time, though, Buonanno got stopped on the shot by Hower’s stick.
The free position was a point of strength for Hower throughout the game. In the first quarter, Jenny Markey attempted to send a cross-field pass to Meaghan. But Marge Donovan made the steal and eventually drew a free position against Katie Goodale. But on the free position, Hower made the save. Kate Mulham’s free position on Hower also went wide as the Tigers couldn’t get past the tightened SU defense. The only other free-position goal Hower conceded was at the beginning of the third quarter.
After Hawryschuk gave the Orange the lead, Hower helped SU translate saves into goals. Sears took a high pass near the net but faced intense pressure from Bianca Chevarie. Sears fell to her knees after facing pressure but still got a relatively clear shot off. However, Hower stood pat and the Tigers failed to convert. On the clear, SU immediately went into transition and it got a free position chance. Natalie Smith then beat Princeton goalie Sam Fish to increase the Orange’s lead to four.
At the end of the quarter, McKenzie Blake leaped and had an open look. But the SU pressure and Hower forced an errant shot that went wide of the net.
It was one of the goalie’s best performances with Syracuse this year. This was only the second time this season that Hower made double digit saves, with the first coming against Loyola in March.
“(Hower) was a huge momentum piece for us,” Syracuse head coach Kayla Treanor said. “She had 11 saves against a great Princeton offense who shoots the ball well. She really stepped up huge.”
By the final 15 minutes of play, Hower and the defense now had the game fully in SU’s control. The Tigers struggled to even maintain possession, failing on clears and turning the ball over five times. While Princeton failed to clear, Syracuse excelled. Midway through the quarter, with the game seemingly out of reach, SU’s defense forced Olivia Pugh into a failed clearance. Seconds later, the Orange cleared the ball out of their half.
Before the game against the Tigers, Syracuse didn’t record a perfect clearance rate since April 16, 2021 against Louisville. The Orange were close numerous times, especially against Fairifeld, but they failed to be perfect until Sunday’s second round matchup.
“We got off to a slow start. “We switched to our normal zone and after that we stuck with it,” Katie Goodale, who led the Orange with two caused turnovers, said. “We made sure our top was covered and Sarah did a great job as our backer in the middle and there were no open shots in the middle.”
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