Flames survive and advance past UC Santa Barbara into MCLA quarterfinals
A 5-0 scoring run to end the third quarter sparked Liberty University’s men’s lacrosse team to a 15-12 triumph over the University of California Santa Barbara in Monday night’s MCLA Division I first-round game at the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex in Texas.
The third-seeded Flames (14-3) broke open a 7-7 contest to seize a 12-7 advantage before fending off a furious comeback bid by the No. 14 Gauchos (8-6) to advance to Tuesday’s 9 p.m. EST quarterfinal against No. 6-seeded Georgia (13-2), which outscored previously undefeated No. 11 Simon Fraser from Vancouver, Canada, 7-0 in the fourth quarter of an 11-7 victory.
“We’re going to move on from this one pretty quick,” Liberty Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said after Monday’s win over UCSB. “One of the unique things about this tournament, four games in six days, it is a grind. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to have to put something on the line in order to be able to come out of here with a national championship.”
Graduate leading scorer Cooper Branham put the Flames on top early, taking a pass behind the cage from senior attack Cameron Carter and finishing from point-blank range from near the right post at the 12:51 mark of the first quarter.
Junior midfielder Keaton Mohs doubled the lead to 2-0 with a spectacular finish from the right side after trotting from left to right behind the cage before sneaking a sharp-angled backhanded shot past Santa Barbara goalie Zane Schwab with 9:23 left in the first quarter.
Ryan Fisk got UC Santa Barbara on the scoreboard with a running shot down the right alley inside the right post at the 7:07 mark. Just over a minute later, Liberty sophomore middie Will Geary started a beautifully designed triangle pass sequence for the Flames’ third goal from the top of the box, feeding sophomore attack Braden Landry behind the cage where he found Mohs open for a rocket of a shot from the left side.
With 2:07 to play in the first period, Geary set up Branham for another rip from the right side, extending the Flames lead to 4-1. But Fisk slashed the deficit in half with 49 seconds to go, cutting into a wide-open right crease and putting an uncontested shot past Liberty junior goalie Eric Warnstrom.
Just over six minutes into the second quarter, Fisk trimmed it to 4-3 by completing a natural hat trick with a running shot from the right side.
The Gauchos maintained advantages in both shots and time of possession for the first half, but the Flames were more efficient with the ball in their sticks.
Seconds after a three-minute stick violation against UC Santa Barbara, Branham capitalized on the man-up situation by taking an assist from freshman attack Luke Branham and ripping a shot from the left side into the top-left corner of the cage, completing his hat trick for a 5-3 lead 4:19 before halftime.
The brothers duo connected again at the 3:42 mark when Luke Branham set up Cooper Branham for his fourth goal of the first half, doubling the Flames’ lead to 6-3.
After a couple penalties against Liberty, UC Santa Barbara stopped the bleeding at even strength with 2:32 to go when Fisk shed a couple Liberty defenders and worked his way into the open right crease before beating Warnstrom one-on-one with a high shot from close range. Exactly 30 seconds later, Trey Kockler cut it to 6-5 before halftime with a low shot from the right side that skipped past Warnstrom.
UCSB’s Camden Dwelly started the second-half scoring by tying the contest with 10:55 left in the third quarter by pocketing a shot while running down the left side.
With the shot clock winding down, the Flames recaptured the lead for good when Landry took an entry pass from freshman middie Bennett Newman in front for a quick pivot and finish from 10 feet out at the 9:24 mark.
Landry capped another assist with a slam dunk off of tic-tac-toe passing from Luke Branham to Cameron Carter who darted from behind the left post to the right side and spotted Landry cutting across the crease. But Connor Udolph sliced it back to 8-7 seconds later by scooping up a loose ball off a long faceoff scramble and catching Warnstrom off guard with a no-look, over-the-back shot from the left side with 8:28 to play.
That is when five unanswered goals by the Flames put them in the driver’s seat going into the fourth quarter.
Geary worked off a pick that took a UC Barbara defender out of the play and threaded a low shot through the five hole after receiving a pass from Mohs from behind the cage for a 9-7 Liberty edge with 6:42 to go in the third. Carter then made a fantastic move behind the net with a quick change of direction before emerging from the right side and beating Schwab top-shelf from a sharp angle at the 6:00 mark.
Landry completed his third-quarter hat trick by picking up a putback and slipping a shot past a diving Schwab with 2:12 left, stretching Liberty’s lead to 11-7. The Flames put their motion offense into full gear with excellent ball movement from Mohs to Carter to Cooper Branham for an easy layup in the right crease.
Udolph capitalized on a fast-break off a steal to start the fourth-quarter scoring and end the Gauchos’ drought with 13:02 remaining in regulation. Schwab netted an amazing shot from 80 feet away, catching Warnstrom out of position on the 10-man ride by launching it from near full-field past him as he retreated to the cage, making it a 12-9 contest with 10:28 to play.
But just under a minute later, Carter came through with a clutch shot into the upper netting after taking a diagonal entry pass down low from Geary, repadding the lead to four goals with 9:30 to go.
After hitting four posts and crossbars, UCSB leading scorer Lucas Menendez made a dodge coming out from behind the left side of the cage and fired a shot into the top-right corner to pull the Gauchos back within 13-10 game with just over 5:04 left. Then, after forcing a turnover in the corner, UC Santa Barbara converted quickly on the other end with Dwelly putting away a shot from the left crease, cutting it to 13-11 with 4:10 remaining.
Warnstrom nearly made a phenomenal save of a dangerous shot by Dwelly from deep in the left crease, but the ball popped out of the netting of his stick and bounced over his head behind him and across the goal line, making it a one-goal game with 2:27 to go.
Carter padded the edge to 14-12 with a slick driving score as he charged into the right crease with 1:20 to play before he completed his natural hat trick with 22 seconds left after winding precious time off the clock and working his way around the back of the cage to finish into an open net for the final score.
When asked what it took to withstand UC Santa Barbara’s comeback attempt, McQuillan said, “Just a ton of fight. We know at the national tournament time, you’re going to get the best punch from every team out here and the Gauchos just really impressed with their tenacity. They just would not go away. Today, we just needed to grind this one out and fortunate to be moving on.”
Freshman middie Shane Supek took the most faceoffs and had the most success for the Flames, winning 10 out of 14 draws. Warnstrom (14 saves) credited his defense in front of him for preserving the victory.
“My defense helped me to see the shot early and had my back throughout the whole game,” he said, noting that it will take an even more dialed-in performance to beat the Bulldogs in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, in their first meeting since 2015, to advance to the MCLA DI Final Four for the first time. “We need to continue to be physical, don’t let the nerves get to us and just keep our heads straight and play our game like we’ve done all season.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer