GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Amanda O’Leary, coach of a Florida lacrosse team that leads the nation in scoring at nearly 16 goals per game, went to the locker room for halftime Friday night in something of a different predicament than she’s used to.
The Gators had two goals.
Fortunately, Ohio State had just one.
"I’m like, what is this, a baseball game?" she said.
No, this was the American Lacrosse Conference Tournament semifinals and the Buckeyes came to Donald R. Dizney Stadium with a plan to play a lax version of keep-away from the third-ranked and top-seeded host team.
“We wanted some quality possessions from our attack ... and we wanted to limit some of Florida’s opportunities,” OSU coach Alexis Venchanose said. “We knew they had a couple-week break [since their last game] and would be kind of antsy to get back on that field, so we thought limiting their possessions would give us the best opportunity to win.”
It certainly did so for the Buckeyes, but it also provided the Gators proof-positive that they don’t have to score big to win a big match.
So when freshman midfielder Nicole Graziano fired a pair of goals past OSU keeper Tori DeScenza barely two minutes apartment midway through the second half, the third-ranked Gators seized the momentum and held off the Buckeyes for a 5-4 victory and berth in the ALC title game.
Note: For context’s sake, UF's scoring output equaled the fewest goals ever scored by the Gators in their three lacrosse seasons -- and they lost those two previous five-goal efforts.
The upshot of this low-scoring couldn't be any different.
Florida (16-2), winner of 12 straight, will meet No. 1-ranked Northwestern (17-1) for the tournament championship Saturday at 12:30 p.m. The Gators handed the Wildcats their lone loss of the season, an 8-7 road upset April 21 that marked only the second defeat by NU on its home field the last eight years.
“They’re going to come out to get us, since we did beat them just a few weeks ago,” junior attack Kitty Cullen said. “But we’ve completely looked past that game. We’re refocused.”
Ohio State certainly helped make the tournament picture clearer.
And since that huge win over the Wildcats happened to be the last time the Gators played a game, maybe there was something to what Venechanos said about UF being somewhat “antsy.”
The Buckeyes, who gave UF a tough game during the regular season before losing 10-8 here back on March 24, were methodical in their offense and solid in their defense for nearly 50 minutes. OSU took its time with the ball, which had to be thoroughly frustrating for the likes of Cullen and her fellow UF attackers as they waited and watched at the other end of the field.
Florida averages 31 shots per game, but got just 24 against the Ohio State.
For the better part of the game, DeScenza was knocking away or covering up practically everything the Gators threw her way, finishing with 15 saves on 20 shots.
“She stopped us all over the place,” Cullen said.
But Florida’s defense did some stopping of its own.
While the Buckeyes wanted a low-scoring game, they needed to capitalize on the chances they did have. Emily Dohony (six ground balls, three forced turnovers) helped key a defense that held OSU -- like UF -- to its fewest goals of the season, while keeper Mikey Meagher may not had the gaudy number of saves as her counterpart, she protected the cage.
“I thought we prepared a good game plan, offensively and defensively,” O’Leary said. “Sometimes it falls, sometimes it doesn’t. I think it says a lot about our team that when it wasn’t falling, we were able to count on two freshmen to come in and really carry the load.”
Take a bow, Graziano, as well as rookie classmate Nora Barry, who scored the first two goals of her team.
And take a bow, Gators, who have a chance to show just how far they’ve come in lacrosse in such a short time; and who now know they can win without scoring in bunches.
“Especially if we hold them to only four,” O'Leary said.