Branham’s goal at buzzer beats Bulldogs, sends Flames to first MCLA Final Four
Shut out for nearly the entire fourth quarter, when it allowed No. 6-seeded Georgia to rally from a three-goal deficit to tie the contest, Liberty University’s No. 3-seeded men’s lacrosse team delivered the game-winner in the final second of regulation in Tuesday night’s MCLA Division I quarterfinal at the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex in Texas.
Flames graduate attack Cooper Branham took an entry pass from junior middie Keaton Mohs and unleashed a nearly unstoppable shot into the top-left corner of the cage to complete his hat trick as time expired, sending Liberty to the MCLA DI Final Four for the first time in 10 seasons at that level with an 11-10 triumph over the Bulldogs.
“(Assistant Coach) Ryan Miller, our offensive coordinator, called timeout and knew exactly what we wanted to do,” Flames Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said. “He had two plays drawn up, and the guys were able to recognize pretty quickly which one to run and they executed it. Credit to our guys for hanging in there and taking the best shot. It was literally a buzzer-beater, an absolute howitzer by Cooper that must have been 100 mph.”
The Flames (15-3) survive and advance to play No. 7 Concordia Irvine (Calif., 12-6), a 14-11 winner over No. 2 Georgia Tech on Tuesday, in Thursday’s semifinal set for 8:45 p.m. EST. Liberty edged the then-No. 10 Golden Eagles, 11-10 in overtime, on April 7 at the Liberty Lacrosse Fields. No. 1 Virginia Tech will face No. 4 Chapman in Thursday’s first semifinal at 6 p.m. EST.
“We are happy to be playing in our first-ever semifinal in program history, which is a pretty big achievement,” McQuillan said. “The fact that two of the four teams left are teams we’ve already played this season is somewhat comforting, and it is awesome to see that two of four teams are from the ALC (Atlantic Lacrosse Conference — Liberty and Virginia Tech) with the other two from the SLC (Southwestern Lacrosse Conference — Chapman and Concordia).”
All four of the Flames’ former SouthEastern Lacrosse Conference (SELC) foes (Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, and South Carolina) were eliminated in the first two rounds.
In their first meeting since 2015, a 19-5 Liberty rout in Lynchburg, Va., the Bulldogs gave the Flames all they could handle.
“Georgia is at the top of the list of teams we’ve played this year,” McQuillan said. “They are a very young, very athletic team that is going to have to be reckoned with in the SELC for a while. I was very impressed with their athleticism, with how fast they were flying around and moving the ball on their last possession, which looked like their first. They outshot us by quite a bit.”
Senior midfielder Patrick Larkin got the Bulldogs on the scoreboard less than two minutes after the opening faceoff with a left-handed laser into the upper netting. Flames senior middie Remy Newton, roaming behind the net, set up freshman attack Luke Branham for the tying score on a wide-open finish as he cut into the left crease at the 8:34 mark.
Just 31 seconds later, after a wild faceoff scramble, Liberty sophomore attack Braden Landry picked up a ground ball and quickly put it away after freshman faceoff specialist Shane Supek (9-for-23 on the night) gained possession and sent him a backwards pass on transition.
Georgia rallied to seize a 4-2 lead in a span of just over two minutes late in the first quarter, with sophomore attack Eli Morin netting all three goals in the flurry. He backed up the cage and gathered the rebound of a shot before charging back into the fray and finishing a point-blank putback in the right crease, tying it at 2-2 at the 5:42 mark. Just 34 seconds elapsed before Morin cut into the front of the cage and executed a quick catch-and-release finish past Flames junior goalie Eric Warnstrom (10 saves) after receiving a crossing pass from freshman Sam Wheeler.
Liberty stopped the Bulldogs on their next possession, but Morin came out from behind the cage and stripped the ball from Warnstrom as he attempted to send an outlet pass and quickly pocketed a point-blank shot into the upper netting, completing a natural hat trick at the 3:25 mark.
The Flames responded with 11:49 left in the second quarter when freshman defender Brody Ashworth sent a cross-field pass to freshman middie Bennett Newman, who sprinted down the right side and threaded a running shot past goalie Reid McCall inside the left post.
Then, with 7:47 left in the first half, Cooper Branham took a feed from Landry, dodged a defender, and launched a rocket of a shot from the right side into the top-left corner of the cage.
Sophomore middie Will Geary (3 goals) received a give-and-go return pass from senior attack Cameron Carter and launched a heat-seeking missile from the top-left of the box through traffic and into the lower-left corner to lift Liberty to a 5-4 lead 4:37 before halftime.
With 1:30 left, Carter sent an entry pass from behind the cage to Luke Branham, who ducked under a defender and finished a low shot past McCall, pushing Liberty’s lead to 6-4 at the half.
The Flames extended their lead early in the second when Cooper Branham worked off a double team and fed Carter as he sliced through the right side of the box. Moments later, Mohs flipped a behind-the-back pass to Carter at the top of the box where he spotted Cooper Branham down low for a five-hole finish from close range to make it 8-4 with 10:50 left in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs struck back with 8:02 to go in the third when Ben Reed sliced through the left side and received an entry pass from Ryan Auman for a turnaround finish on the run, trimming the deficit to 8-5. But the Flames answered promptly as Carter set up Geary behind the net where he accelerated quickly past a defender and burst out from behind the right post before bouncing in a backhander from a sharp angle for a 9-5 advantage. With the Flames in a man-up situation, Geary capitalized by taking a pass from Newman and skipping a long bounce shot from the top of the box past McCall.
Larkin responded by rifling a running shot from the top right side past Warnstrom before a turnover on transition allowed the Bulldogs to battle back within 10-7 with just under a minute to play when Wheeler spotted Kevin Nyquist with a cross-crease pass for a left-side finish.
The Bulldogs killed off a two-minute non-releasable penalty to start the fourth quarter before drawing within 10-8 on a driving shot by Morin, who finished despite being fouled. After a back-and-forth battle for possession on the ensuing faceoff, Georgia made it a one-goal game on a fast-break score by Wheeler at the 9:57 mark. Just 19 seconds later, Bulldogs long-stick middie Aidan McKenna knotted the score at 10 with an open run and shot from the left side that snuck past Warnstrom inside the right post.
“The fourth quarter was chaotic, when we definitely got away from what we were trying to do, which was to control the tempo and limit their fast breaks,” McQuillan said.
He had seen the Bulldogs rally from a 7-4 deficit after three quarters to defeat Simon Fraser 11-7 in Monday night’s first-round game.
“We knew it was coming, and were hoping to be able to fend them off,” McQuillan said. “I told the guys that if Georgia was going to run with us, they were going to be pushing the ball on transition, where they showed how dangerous they could be. They made it difficult to possess, with their aggressive riding on our guys in a way I have rarely seen, and they were definitely able to turn that fourth quarter into more of a pace they were familiar with. Their ability to play fast, move the ball, and hit guys running full-speed and go attack the cage was pretty crazy. The opportunity for us to be in the position to win it at the end was solely from the tenacity of our defense.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer