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Thursday May 24, 2012A Berth in National Championship – and a Second Chance – on Gators' Mind in Rematch with Syracuse

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

STONY BROOK, N.Y. – As she walked off the field at Don Dizney Stadium on March 3, Gators junior attacker Kitty Cullen's position fit her mood perfectly.

Cullen looked as if she could attack someone with the lacrosse stick she dangled by her side on the long walk back toward Florida's locker room. In the last game the Gators lost – a 12-11 double-overtime loss to Syracuse that lasted more than two and a half hours – Cullen went home mad.

"I remember being really upset after the game,'' she said.

Cullen had her reasons. For one, the Gators lost at home, a rarity in the young program's brief history. They took 39 shots to Syracuse's 26 – and lost. They owned advantages in both ground balls and draw controls – and lost.

A fierce competitor and a team leader, Cullen wasn't too pleased with her performance either, finding the net just once on 10 shots.

"We could not shoot at all,'' Cullen said Thursday on the eve of a rematch with Syracuse in the NCAA semifinals. "It was just such a bad game for us. I think [Friday] night that Syracuse is going to be seeing a completely different team."

With a berth in Sunday's national championship at stake, the Gators and Orange square off again Friday here at LaValle Stadium on the campus of Stony Brook University.

The Gators enter on a school-record 15-game win streak that includes a pair of wins over defending national champion Northwestern, which plays Maryland in the other semifinal on Friday. The Gators are not just winning, but they have often been dominant, outscoring opponents 227-88 during the win streak.

Shooting has rarely been a problem in the two months since they misfired against Syracuse.

"We had to make some adjustments offensively after that game,'' Florida coach Amanda O'Leary said. "We made some adjustments defensively as well. They certainly tested us at both ends of the field."

The Gators advanced to the Final Four with a 15-2 win over Penn State; Syracuse earned its third Final Four berth in five seasons with a 17-16 win over North Carolina.

Their first meeting was a seesaw affair that ended when Syracuse's Bridget Daly won the opening draw in the second overtime and Katie Webster scored the game-winner 55 seconds later.

With the rematch looming, Florida is banking on some of the offensive tweaks it made after the first game – more of freshman draw-specialist Shannon Gilroy as an offensive threat perhaps topping the list – to help get past the Orange.

Gilroy has been superb in the postseason, scoring 11 of the Gators' 35 goals in the last three games.

"Shannon is a huge offensive threat,'' Cullen said. "She is going to be helping a lot in this game."

O'Leary agreed that Gilroy's emergence has added another element to Florida's attack.

"I think Shannon is a tremendous asset to our program,'' O'Leary said. "I think we are peaking offensively. I'm not sure we would even be close to being where we are without her at this point."

The Gators gathered Monday to watch Syracuse's dramatic win over North Carolina. The Orange's Michele Tumolo scored the game-winner with five seconds remaining.

Syracuse coach Gary Gait's club does have one advantage it didn't have in the first game against Florida: freshman attacker Kailah Kempney, a draw specialist expected to challenge Gilroy for some of those 50-50 balls.

Gait knows the Orange need to be at their best since the Gators clearly are.

"I think Florida has got it and they figured it out, and they’ve had the big wins against Northwestern that propelled them into that mental state of mind that preps them to play,'' Gait said. "They’re incredibly deep in every position. I think that that’s what makes them so strong is they have talent everywhere, throw in a couple of freshmen which are top players in the country, and you know they just become stronger."

The Gators are the No. 1 seed. They are admittedly playing their best of the season. And they have all their key players healthy.

Those factors combined offer reasons to be confident. But there's also that memory of the loss to Syracuse earlier. That's a feeling Cullen doesn't want to experience again.

"You never want to lose to the same team twice in a season,'' Cullen said. "I definitely think everyone wants a little revenge."



Florida (19-2) vs. Syracuse (18-3)

When: Friday, 5:30 p.m.

Where: LaValle Stadium, Stony Brook, N.Y.


RADIO: WRUF Sports Radio 850 (live steaming here)

NEED TO KNOW: Florida is trying to make it to the NCAA Championship Game in only its third season ... The winner faces the Northwestern-Maryland winner on Saturday for the national title ... Syracuse ranks fifth in country in points (453) and scoring average (15 goals per game) ... Syracuse's Alyssa Murray ranks second in nation in goals (70) and third in points (100) ... The UF-Syracuse all-time series is tied 1-1 ... Florida beat Syracuse 16-11 on March 19, 2011 ... Florida leads the country in scoring defense -- 6.19 goals allowed per game ... Florida features six players who have scored 39 or more goals: Gabi Wiegand (46), Kitty Cullen (45), Ashley Bruns (43), Brittany Dashiell (40), Nora Barry (39) and Shannon Gilroy (39) ... ESPN's Joe Beninati
(play-by-play) and Courtney Martinez Connor (analyst) are calling the game; Martinez Connor is the daughter of former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Tippy Martinez.



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