Flames eliminated in MCLA quarterfinals by Gamecocks’ fourth-quarter run
No. 3-seeded South Carolina’s six-goal, fourth-quarter flurry erased a three-goal lead by Liberty University’s men’s lacrosse team, resulting in an 11-9 season-ending setback in Tuesday night’s MCLA Division I National Championship quarterfinals at the Round Rock Sports Complex near Austin, Texas.
Playing in 90-plus-degree temperatures, the Gamecocks (15-3) turned the tables on the sixth-seeded Flames (11-5), who had won a back-and-forth regular-season opener on Feb. 19 at Liberty, 9-8.
“That’s the conclusion of our 2022 season and it was a tough pill to swallow for us,” Liberty Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said. “There were definitely still a lot of positives. This is our third national tournament in a row, or fourth if you count last year’s (MCLA Invitational), so we’re continuing to be one of the most consistent teams in the country, and we continue to work to get closer and closer to a national championship. There’s no question that is our goal and where we want to be. We have done well at the national level to win all three of our first-round games, but not getting past the Elite 8 is definitely frustrating.”
Graduate attack Carter Elliott, who was held scoreless in Monday’s opener against Grand Canyon, started the scoring against South Carolina just over a minute after the opening faceoff, ripping a shot from the left side of the box past goalie Alex Petrush into the top right corner of the cage.
Less than a minute later, after the first of 19 saves by Flames graduate goalie Ryan Reynolds and a turnover on a long outlet pass, USC freshman attack Johnny Stanton emerged from behind the left side of the cage and bounced a shot past Reynolds to tie it at 1-1.
Liberty senior middie Cameron Carter then drove down the right alley and reversed a pass back to sophomore middie Keaton Mohs (2 goals, 2 assists), who rocketed a shot into the top right corner for a 2-1 Liberty lead at the 10:33 mark.
After a couple spectacular saves and successful clearing passes by Reynolds, Elliott stretched Liberty’s lead to 3-1 when his running shot down the right side struck the left pipe and bounced right back to him for a point-blank putback past Petrush with 7:53 left in the first quarter.
“Ryan Reynolds played phenomenally tonight,” McQuillan said. “He overperformed in that first half.”
With 38 seconds left in the second quarter, the Flames capitalized on a shorthanded goal when senior attack Cooper Branham — who played after X-rays revealed he did not break his foot in the first half of Monday’s game — made a split-dodge maneuver as he came out from behind the left side of the goal and sidearmed a laser of a shot into the top right corner.
“The game plan and the execution and what we were trying to accomplish in the first half went as well as we could have hoped,” McQuillan said. “Of all the teams we’ve played, they’re the most dangerous with numerous offensive weapons, so holding a team like South Carolina to one goal in the first half, we did a great job of controlling possessions and minimizing their opportunities.”
USC’s All-SELC first-team special teams player of the year Will Frith started the second-half scoring by winning the opening faceoff and running down the center of the field before firing a shot past Reynolds into the top netting, trimming the deficit to 4-2.
“They did a great job of taking back the momentum, with a fast-break goal right off the second-half faceoff,” McQuillan said. “It’s a testament to them for being able to respond, and to how quickly momentum can swing.”
South Carolina won 15 out of 21 faceoffs for the contest, and swung the time of possession in its favor in the second half.
“We were losing the vast majority of the faceoffs, and we really didn’t have the ball very much in that fourth quarter,” he added. “They scored 10 goals in the second half compared to one in the first. South Carolina did a great job of capitalizing and we couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
Freshman middie Ryan Merbach made a split dodge move out of the middle before firing a sidearmed shot from the left side that beat Petrush, stretching Liberty’s lead to 5-2 with 12:35 left in the third quarter. Then, at the 10:29 mark, senior middie Thomas Pinel gathered the rebound of Elliott’s deflected shot for an easy finish in the open right side of the goalmouth, making it a 6-2 contest and seemingly putting the Flames in control.
But USC attack Ryan Vermeulen’s bouncing shot from the top right of the box cut the deficit to 6-3 with 8:29 left in the third before Vermeulen assisted Stanton’s second goal from a sharp angle on the left side to trim it to 6-4 less than a minute later.
With two seconds left on the shot clock and 12:09 remaining in regulation, the Flames extended their lead to 7-4 off a restart from the corner with Mohs sending an entry pass to cutting freshman middie Will Geary for a low finish in the left crease.
Gamecocks attack Pat Reilly unleashed a shot from the top of the box over defenders and Reynolds to slice Liberty’s lead to 7-5. Frith won the ensuing faceoff and assisted Stanton’s shot from the left side to cut it to 7-6 with 10:59 to go before Connor Griffin netted the equalizer from the right side less than a minute later.
Senior attack Sam Weis then gave the Gamecocks their first lead at 8-7 with a howitzer of a shot from the top left side of the box, prompting a Liberty timeout with 8:11 to go.
Riley’s shot from the right side off a cross-field assist glanced off the crossbar and into the net, doubling USC’s advantage to 9-7. The Flames failed to pick up a ground ball in the defensive end and the Gamecocks capitalized when Corbett Glick set up Vermeulen cutting across the crease for a catch and release shot from close range.
That gave USC a commanding 10-7 lead with 3:41 to go before Branham received an assist from Carter and answered on the other end with a sidearmed shot into the top left corner.
Reynolds made a fantastic save of a behind-the-back shot by Weis after a delayed penalty behind the goal. But the Gamecocks cashed in on an empty-netter by Griffin after the Flames resorted to their “Raider” defense with just over a minute to play, pulling Reynolds out of the cage to use as an extra defender. That padded their lead to 11-8 before Mohs converted a man-up opportunity for the final score in the final minute and Petrush made a great save of a fast-break shot allowing USC to run out the clock.
“We knew we would have to play a very good game to beat them and we were in a position to win that game, even late into that fourth quarter,” McQuillan said. “Unfortunately, we let South Carolina back into it. They got hot in the second half and were able to do more than we did. I was proud of the way our guys played. We had the ability and potential to make a run at the national championship. We’ve just got to go out there and prove it and compete.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media