Comeback of the century: Virginia stuns Duke in the 2007 NCAA Women's D1 Semifinals

By Michael Spinner

The game was so over that even the hot dog vendors packed up and called it a night. A record crowd of 6,428 fans entered Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania on Friday night to see what was supposed to be the 'game of the year' in Division I Women's Lacrosse as Virginia squared off with Duke in the NCAA semifinals. They met once during the 2007 season with Duke prevailing 19-18 in double overtime during what could only be billed as a classic. With a shot at the National Championship on the line, even if it would be against the dynastic Northwestern Wildcats, another battle for the ages seemed imminent.

But when Duke extended an 8-3 halftime lead into a 13-4 advantage with 20:46 to play in the game, all hopes of an epic battle seemed to fade away, and the fans started to leave they left in droves and the stadium was all but empty. The stadium became so empty that both team's coaches could be heard talking to the players, the referees, and even each other. It was over, a done deal, and Duke was cruising to the NCAA Championship Game with an effort so incredibly flawless that a potential upset of Northwestern in Sunday's Final seemed, all at once, possible. It was one of those nights that everything went right for Duke, and nothing worked for Virginia. But the night was young.

That is, until the biggest difference between the two programs came to light. There was one major difference between the Duke University and University of Virginia Women's Lacrosse program on Friday night, a difference that had nothing to do with talent, experience, or even game-plan. The difference between the 'Hoos and Blue Devils in this game was that the University of Virginia had Julie Myers patrolling the sidelines, and Duke did not. And the difference led to the greatest post-season comeback in the history of the sport. During a stunning turn of events, Virginia not only turned the game around while down by nine goals, they completed an unforgettable run of 10 straight tallies during a 17-minute span and advanced to the NCAA Championship Game with a 14-13 win.

While the strong Virginia cheering section was dejected, and the Cavalier bench remained silent as Duke went on its early run, it was Virginia coach Julie Myers who proved to be the most resilient member of the team. The Coach would not let the 2007 season go. While Virginia struggled to find their game with their season on the line, Myers continued to clap, pump her fist, and maintain a positive demeanor during an otherwise disastrous stretch of lacrosse for her squad. She even found a way to smile at times despite the seemingly insurmountable deficit.

"I do always believe that it will never rain on us and that we will win games. It's not that I don't recognize the deficit or trouble we may be in, but I may be naive and I believe in the things that I work with," Myers said with a chuckle. "I believe in my team and I will never coach any other way."

After Duke's Danielle Kachulis fired a shot past Virginia goalie Kendall McBrearty with 20:46 to play to make it 13-4, Virginia gained some life 3:37 later when sophomore Ashley McCulloch won a draw, and found sophomore Blair Weymouth, who was promptly fouled and set up an eight-meter shot. Weymouth converted the shot for her second of four goals during the game, and the lead was down to eight. Less than a minute later, Virginia proved that momentum had completely swung their way when they broke up a Duke clearing attempt, and sophomore Ashley McCulloch notched her 30th goal of the season after a spectacular one-on-one move to make it 13-6. McCulloch wasn't finished there. She won the ensuing draw, and stormed her way down the field and found senior Megan Havrilla wide open on the crease for a goal that made it 13-7. During a span of 1:02, Duke's nine-goal cushion dwindled down to six.

McCulloch's heroics continued a minute later when she knocked down a long Duke clearing pass, scooped up the loose ball, raced down the field, and found Virginia's Kate Breslin, who converted a shot for her 67th goal of the season, and it was a 13-8 game. The Cavaliers scored four goals during a span of 2:02, and through hustle, grit, and some exceptional passing, McCulloch was a factor in three of them.

"Ashley was huge. I think she has been playing great during the last six or seven weeks. She's just a real gritty, grubby player. I'm not surprised that she came through the way she did. I don't think anybody is surprised." Myers said.

After a Duke time-out, McBrearty - who struggled and made only four saves during the game - made her biggest stop of the game - a point-blank stuff of Duke's Lindsay Gilbride - and Virginia quickly cleared the ball. The transition found the ball in Weymouth's stick, who scored her 56th goal of the season to make it 13-9 with 14:12 to play.

After a wild series that saw the teams trade turnovers on several occasions, Weymouth scored her fourth goal of the game with 10:33 to play to make it 13-10. 56 seconds later, Virginia's Jess Wasilewski scored her second goal of the game - on McCulloch's fourth assist - to make it 13-11. The game was not televised and those remaining in the stands numbered far fewer than the record crowd once packing the house. The once large stadium event was now a truly intimate affair, every participant and witness now fully vested in the moment. The crowd rose to their feet in anticipation of history unfolding before them. They would not be disappointed.

And if Wasilewski's goal brought the crowd to its feet, the stands went into a frenzy 39 seconds later when Virginia's Megan Havrilla converted scored to make it 13-12. With 8:58 to play, a trip to the NCAA Finals hedged on whether Virginia could complete the most improbable of feats, or if Duke could hang on by a thread. Every individual play became a matter of urgency, and both teams went toe-to-toe with each waiting for the other to make a mistake.

The mistake ended up being Duke's as after the Cavaliers could not convert three straight shots, Duke cleared the ball and attempted to enter what could have been a game-winning possession. However, Blue Devil senior Leigh Jester turned the ball over, and after a Virginia clear, Havrilla scored her third goal of the game to tie the score at 13 with 4:47 to play.

"I don't know if there was a specific turning point, but once we started making our shots and getting the loose balls and the draws, we started to feed off ourselves and it kind of went forward from there." Said Havrilla, who scored three of her 26 goals for the 2007 season during the 10-0 run.

After Duke used its second time-out, the final minutes played out like something out of a Hollywood storyline. While Duke controlled possession for much of the final minutes, two crucial breaks would go against them, helping the unlikely Virginia victory play out. First, Duke sophomore Carolyn Davis - the team's fourth-leading scorer - went down with a knee injury so serious that she was carted off of the field. If losing a key midfielder was not enough, after another Duke turnover, Blue Devil senior Rachel Sanford, who was all over the place during the game, was called for a yellow card with 2:59 to play, and Duke was forced to play the remainder of regulation without two of their best midfielders. And Virginia would have the ball.

But Weymouth hit the goalpost with a shot with 2:19 to play, and the ball went back to Duke. However, for the fourth time during the second half, the Blue Devils could not clear the ball, and McCulloch made a crucial play once again, grabbing a loose ball and giving the Virginia attack the final possession of the game. While Duke was able to stop a Virginia set play with under 20 seconds remaining, the Cavalier ball movement found the ball in Wasilewski's stick. The senior drove to goal at a nearly impossible angle, but found a way to convert a shot with nine seconds to play to give Virginia the 14-13 lead.

"We had the last-shot play all set, but Duke was able to stop it. I got the ball and I knew there wasn't too much time left. I heard Kate Breslin yell, 'you gotta go, you gotta go.' So I took it and shot and hoped for the best. Luckily, it went in. In the locker room, we just kept saying 'oh my gosh', we're all kind of shocked right now." Wasilewski said.

Remarkably, Duke would have one last shot to tie the score and force overtime as Blue Devil junior Caroline Cryer won the ensuing draw and took a shot as the final seconds ticked off the clock. But McBrearty made the save to end a game that will not soon be forgotten. Virginia's bench emptied on to the field in elation, while the Duke bench stood silent and stunned. For the second straight season, Duke was denied a shot at their first NCAA Championship Game after a late-game meltdown that saw an opponent score on the game's final shot for a one-goal win. In 2006, it was an 11-10 double overtime defeat at the hands of Northwestern after Duke led for much of the game.

"The first word that comes to my mind is 'wow.' Obviously we were down by a lot in the second half to a really powerful Duke team that seemed to make everything look real easy in the first half and the first 10 minutes of the second half. But our girls dug deep, started to get feistier and feistier on loose balls and draw controls, and started taking it hard to the goal. I am hugely impressed by my team's effort tonight. Obviously we are happy to still be playing," said Myers, who led Virginia to the NCAA Finals for the seventh time during a 12-year run as the Head Coach at Virginia.

Virginia's comeback was by far the largest in NCAA Tournament history. The previous high was a five-goal comeback by Dartmouth during a 9-8 overtime win over Loyola in the 1998 NCAA Quarterfinals. But that game was different in that Dartmouth's deficit only lasted through halftime, the fact that Virginia's 10-goal run was during a span of only 17:09 made their efforts only more dramatic.

The comeback also erased an incredible effort by Duke during the game's first 40 minutes of play to gain the initial 13-4 lead. During an effort that Sanford called the "best half we have ever had," the Blue Devils scored 13 goals on only 20 shots with Cryer, Sanford, and Kristen Waagbo combining for 10 of those goals. Things were going so well for Duke that Waagbo scored an early goal on a hidden-ball trick, and Duke's final goal was scored after an errant pass in transition was tipped in.

"It's obviously a devastating loss for us. I think the first half was the best half of lacrosse we have played this season, from one end of the field to the other. I can't put a finger on what happened. Our kids believed in themselves until the very end. We didn't slow down, Virginia sped up. They showed a ton of fortitude, and pecked away at the lead. They forced us to make a ton of mistakes, and it seemed like they had the ball most of the second half as a result," said Duke Head Coach Kerstin Kimel, who now has a 147-72 record during 11 seasons on the Duke sidelines, but an 11-10 record during NCAA Tournament play.

Upon closer examination of the game's numbers, the nine-goal Duke lead was misleading in the sense that the difference between the teams was never that great. It often is in lacrosse. Virginia actually out-shot the Blue Devils, 16-14 during the first half, but an incredible effort between the pipes by Duke sophomore Kim Imbesi allowed the Blue Devils to pull ahead. Imbessi stopped 10 out of 12 first-half shots, several of which were from point-blank range, and for more than 40 minutes, it appeared as if Virginia had no answer for the Duke keeper. Kimel called Imbessi's effort, "unbelievable."

The difference down the stretch was turnovers and ground balls. Each team committed five turnovers during the first half of play, but during the final 30 minutes, Duke committed an incredible 14 turnovers - including five failed clears, while Virginia committed only five. And when it came to ground balls, Duke held a 5-3 edge after 30 minutes of play, but Virginia held a 13-5 edge during the second half. Overall, Virginia held a 44-23 edge in shots. Imbessi finished with an incredible 16 saves for the Blue Devils, but the effort was not enough.

"That's coaching for you," Kimel said. "You live and die as a coach based on the efforts of 18-22 year olds. Some games they're brilliant, others they are not. Tonight, we were both. But I am very proud of my team. We all expected to be close. We expected a battle."

For the Cavaliers, the win set up the rubber match in recent NCAA Tournament play between Virginia and Northwestern. The Cavaliers beat Northwestern 15-11 in the 2004 NCAA Quarterfinals before the Wildcats scored a 13-10 win in the 2005 NCAA Championship Game. Northwestern has not lost an NCAA Tournament game since the 2004 meeting and would be playing to become the first program to win three straight NCAA Championships since Maryland won seven straight titles from 1995-2001, under Cindy Timchal.

"Obviously, Northwestern is an exceptional team and what they do, they do very well. We are going to have our hands full for sure. The pressure and trap the ball, and don't allow teams to spend much time holding the ball. We're going to have to move the ball around the perimeter quickly before looking inside, but that may suit our attack pretty well. Hopefully we will get off to a good start. I don't think we can spot them nine goals that would not be a good game plan," said Myers. It was a light moment but everyone in the room knew she was dead serious. On Sunday night, Northwestern's Hilary Bowen tallied five goals, leading the Wildcats to third straight Division I women's lacrosse national championship, 15 to 13 over a Cavalier team that just didn't quite have a second historic miracle comeback in them that weekend. After Northwestern built an 11-5 lead in the first half, Virginia got within 14-13 with 10:21 remaining but it was not to be. Northwestern's win was historic as was Kristen Kjellman's second consecutive Tewaaraton award but those few true fans that didn't give up on a 13-4 game with 20:46 left saw the most exciting moments of 2007 and the comeback of the century.

June 11, 2007

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