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Sunday May 27, 2012 A few thoughts to put a cap on Gators lacrosse team's memorable run to Final Four

Kitty Cullen

Syracuse face-guarded Kitty Cullen much of Friday's game, limiting her scoring chances.

STONY BROOK, N.Y. – The Gators' disappointment remained obvious on Saturday morning as they prepared to board a flight back to Gainesville.

As head coach Amanda O'Leary handed each player a plaque to take home in recognition of a trip to the NCAA women's lacrosse Final Four, most took a quick look and then stuffed the box in their luggage.

The Gators came here to win an NCAA title and appeared on their way to playing in Sunday night's NCAA Championship against Northwestern until Syracuse rallied from a seven-goal deficit for a 14-13 win in double-overtime on Friday night.

As time passes, the Gators will appreciate what they accomplished in only the program's third season. Florida finished 19-3 and won a school-record 15 consecutive games before Friday's loss.

They also beat Northwestern, the defending national champion and the game's dominant program in recent years, twice.

"I'm just really proud of our season,'' O'Leary said. "It's quite a thing to compete in the Final Four at [this] stage of our program."

Before closing the book the season, here are some thoughts in the wake of one of the most interesting Gator sporting events I've covered during the 2011-12 season.

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A lot of fans bashed the officials on Twitter and message boards after Gabi Wiegand's goal with nine seconds left in the first overtime seemed to have the Gators on their way to the title game.

But a request for a stick check by Syracuse's Alyssa Murray prompted the officials to rule Wiegand's stick was illegal – the netting was too loose.

No doubt, it was a difficult turn of events for Florida fans.

Afterward, in talks with players, coaches and writers who cover lacrosse regularly, it became obvious that stick checks are a key part of the sport's gamesmanship.

Coaches know they are coming on crucial goals. So do players. That's why you'll often see players tightening their nets after goals to make sure it will pass the inspection.

There was talk after Syracuse's Sarah Holden scored the game-winning goal in double-overtime that when the officials checked her stick – at Florida's request – it may not have even been the one she used on the shot since sticks were scattered on the ground during the ensuing celebration.

What was difficult for Florida to swallow was that on Wiegand's goal, her shot came on a free-position attempt. So there was time to perhaps make sure the netting wasn't too loose prior to the shot.

Of course, in the emotion of the moment, that's an easy detail to overlook.

The netting on lacrosse sticks become looser and looser in the flow of the game and players are constantly at risk of playing with an illegal stick if a stick check is called.

The bottom line is that it's always an unfortunate turn of events when officials play a major role in the outcome of a game. That was the case on Friday night in a painful way for the Gators.

And did the loose netting on Wiegand's free-position goal give her an advantage? No. She had to make the shot and she did. The loose netting helps mostly when players are cradling the ball and defenders are trying to knock the ball loose.

Seems to me the proper solution to avoiding stick checks playing a major role in the outcome of games is for the sport to try and develop a better netting that plays true to the rules throughout a game.

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The Gators could very easily be back in the Final Four considering that every key player on this year's team is eligible to return next season.

The Gators' only senior is Carolina Cochran, who suffered a knee injury in the second game of the season that cut her season short.

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I got a couple of questions on Twitter after the game about Gators junior attacker Kitty Cullen, who did not score a goal in the loss to Syracuse.

Cullen was Florida's leading scorer in 2011 and finished with 45 goals this season. Her only point Friday was an assist on Nora Barry's goal that gave Florida a 4-2 lead.

Cullen was a main target of Syracuse's defense as the Orange face-guarded her throughout the game, limiting her scoring opportunities.

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Syracuse took 43 shots to Florida's 23. In their previous meeting – a 12-11 Syracuse win in overtime on March 3 – the Gators held a 39-26 shot advantage.

Gators goalie Mikey Meagher

If not for Gators goalkeeper Mikey Meagher's stellar play the game might have been over long before overtime.

"Their goalie was just outstanding,'' Syracuse coach Gary Gait said. "Ten saves in the first half put us back on our heels, really made our offense start second-guessing their shooting an opportunities on the offensive end."

Meagher tied her career high with 15 saves; her biggest mistake was a turnover on a pass late in the game that gave Syracuse possession.

Meagher said she "panicked" on the play and didn't realize she had as much time as she did.

Still, O'Leary knows the Gators would have been in trouble with Meagher's performance.

"She literally kept us in it,'' O'Leary said. "She was coming up with huge saves. She was a real shining star on our team throughout that entire 60 minutes."

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The Gators led 12-5 with a little more than 17 minutes left before faltering down the stretch. Asked what she thought the biggest issue was for Florida during Syracuse's comeback, O'Leary said:

"They were driving hard to the goal. I don't think defensively we were as organized as we needed to be. We had a breakdown defensively, which was clear by their goals. It was about possession and it was about draw control."

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QUOTE OF NOTE: "Sometimes it takes a little bit of divine intervention, luck. We thought it was over. Alyssa Murray made a big call on a stick check." – Gait on the call that led to Wiegand's goal being nullified.

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