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    February 26, 2022 Lynchburg, Va. RSS |

    Facing Pittsburgh for the third time at the MCLA Division I level but first time as members of the Atlantic Lacrosse Conference (ALC) North Region, Liberty University’s men’s lacrosse team improved to 3-0 against the Panthers with its most decisive victory to date, winning 18-10 Saturday night at the Liberty Lacrosse Fields.

    The Flames (2-0, 1-0 ALC) let the Panthers (1-2, 0-1) back into the contest by giving up six goals in the third quarter before outscoring Pitt, 5-1, in the fourth to clinch the win.

    “We kept the door open a little bit for them, but we shut them out toward the end,” said senior attack Cooper Branham, who scored 4 goals and added 1 assist. “Moving forward, we’re going to try to keep that door shut once we get the lead and not let them come back.”

    After being held to three goals in the first quarter — two by Branham and one by senior attack Thomas Pinel (6 goals) — the Flames came out firing in the second, adding five more to stretch their lead to 8-3.

    Flames players celebrate a second-quarter goal.

    Senior attack Mark Rolewicz (3 goals) started the second-quarter scoring by finishing a feed from Ryan O’Connor (4 assists) from the left side of the box, ripping a shot into the upper-netting for a 4-1 advantage. Branham extended the edge to 5-1 moments later, taking a pass from senior middie Cameron Carter out of the Flames’ set offense and rifling a shot past Pitt goalie Michael Gonzalez.

    “We’re really happy when we settle down and use the full shot clock, get the full offense moving and rotating,” Branham said. “It just takes away the time that they have to attack and if we can score after using a full 90 seconds, that’s exactly what we’re going for.”

    The Panthers got on the comeback trail, netting back-to-back goals to pull within 5-3 before Liberty closed out the half on a 3-0 run. Pinel finished an assist from O’Connor in traffic and sophomore middie Keaton Mohs (4 goals) netted the next two scores, the first on a fast break and second on a putback of a teammate’s shot off the post.

    Rolewicz opened the second-half scoring by widening the gap to 9-3, posting up in front of the cage and receiving an entry feed from the top of the box from sophomore middle Ryan Merbach before pivoting and putting away his shot from point-blank range at the 14:14 mark.

    Less than a minute later, Pinel took a pass from Mohs in the right side of the box and fired a sharp-angled shot past Gonzalez with 13:22 to go in the third quarter. Just over a minute after that, Mohs set up junior middie Jacob Gasterland with a pass from behind the cage for an easy overhand finish from in the right crease, making it 11-3 Liberty with 12:20 remaining.

    Pittsburgh retaliated, however, going on a 4-0 run over the next seven minutes on backup goalie Noah Kurtz before the Flames capitalized on a turnover with a quick counterattack as O’Connor assisted Pinel’s shot from the right side for a 12-7 Liberty lead.

    Then, O’Connor drove through the right side of the box before sending a pass back to Rolewicz for a finish under close coverage and a 13-7 advantage at the 2:54 mark.

    “Ryan O’Connor’s definitely a playmaker, a play starter,” Branham said. “He gets things going, gets the offense rotating, gets the defense rotating, and that leads to a lot of open opportunities.”

    Panthers attack Philip Tarling trimmed the deficit to 13-8 with a shot from the top of the box off an assist from middie Evan LeCates with 1:19 left in the quarter before making it a 13-9 game going into the fourth on long-stick middle Jack DeGurian’s shot from behind his own cage that bounced past Kurtz into the Flames’ open net with 2.3 seconds to go.

    “The third quarter is normally our best quarter, but we didn’t play to our potential,” Liberty Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said. “We made a substitution in net to try to get Noah some quality minutes, but we didn’t set him up for success. We had a lot of man-down penalties and were caught in transition a few times.”

    Liberty again started the scoring in the fourth quarter when Pinel finished on a fast-break, but the Panthers remained on the prowl, with LeCates beating starting goalie Ryan Reynolds (5 saves), who returned to the cage, with a shot from the top of the box.

    But Branham answered with a turnaround shot from the right side after receiving a pass from Carter, keeping the Flames in front, 15-10,  and Mohs made it 16-10 with a wraparound shot from the left side of the cage with 4:57 remaining in regulation.

    Liberty graduate goalie Ryan Reynolds guards the cage as the Panthers’ Alex Gonzalez attacks from the left side.

    Mohs added more insurance with a shot from the top of the box at the 1:47 mark, padding Liberty’s lead to 17-10 before Pinel took a pass from Branham and capped the scoring with a running shot down the left side with 1:11 to go.

    “The fourth quarter, we were able to pull away and create the space that we were hoping to have for the entirety of the game, so that was a good response from our guys,” McQuillan said. “Now, we have a real quick turnaround before playing West Virginia (Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Liberty Lacrosse Fields). We are looking forward to playing that game back-to-back to let our guys get a chance to respond and fix some of the mistakes from tonight.”

    “That’s definitely going to be the game plan for (Sunday),” Branham added. “Come out shooting, come out hot, put them away quick, and don’t let them get back into the game.”

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer