If the past two months has taught us anything about sports, it’s this:
The University at Albany should want no part of Hartford in a first-round America East playoff game — especially when the Great Danes are the heavy home favorite.
We saw that in March with the men’s basketball team. And we saw it Thursday in men’s lacrosse.
One of the unique aspects of lacrosse is that even if you have an extremely potent offense, your scoring opportunities can be severely limited if you can’t win the faceoff.
Hartford draw specialist Dylan Protesto won an amazing 20 of 24 faceoffs, and Justin Huggins scored his fifth goal of the game at 3:36 of sudden-death overtime, to lift the Hawks to a shocking 11-10 victory over top-seeded UAlbany in the America East Conference tournament semifinals at Casey Stadium.
UAlbany (12-3), ranked fourth in the nation in both major polls, saw its 28-game conference winning streak snapped by the 10-6 Hawks, who meet Vermont, a 10-9 victor over 13th-ranked Stony Brook, in Saturday morning’s championship game back here. It was Vermont’s first-ever tournament victory.
UAlbany’s basketball team was also surprised by Hartford in that tournament in March in the America East Tournament, creating a cruel symmetry for Great Dane fans.
Despite precious few scoring opportunities, the Great Danes held a 10-8 lead with 5:14 left in regulation when Sean Eccles ripped a hard shot past Hartford goalie Ryan Vanderford.
But Griffin Feiner collected a loose ball and bounced it past UAlbany senior goalie Blaze Riorden two minutes later to pull the Hawks within a goal.
The Hawks then evened the score when Alec Brown scored on a man-up opportunity with 28.1 seconds left.
The Great Danes had a chance to run out the clock or even score a go-ahead goal of their own, but they turned the ball over with 8.9 seconds remaining, setting up an extra session.
Hartford won the faceoff, called timeout with 3:36 left and then scored on Huggins’ spinning shot 13 seconds later.
“Obviously, this is disappointing for us,” UAlbany head coach Scott Marr said. “They controlled the ball for the entire game, and we had to battle every possession to have a chance to score. It’s difficult to play defense for so much of the game. They had 20 more possessions than we did.”
Marr, named the conference’s Coach of the Year for the fifth time, tried to be philosophical about the loss:
“I told the guys that this is life. There are times you are going to win and there are times you are going to lose.”
“Our guys played hard the whole game,” said Riorden, named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. “But we’re just kids. We learned a hard lesson tonight. It was a learning experience. Nothing is guaranteed. In the playoffs, anything can happen. We will learn from this, and we will bounce back.”
Connor Fields, one of the few UAlbany scoring threats all night, finished with three goals. “It was tough to get a rhythm,” he said. “We didn’t have the ball that often, and every time Hartford got the faceoff, they slowed it down.”
UAlbany still thinks it has a good chance at an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.
“We hope our name is called on Sunday [at the selection show],” he said.
“I think we’re in great shape to get a bid,” Marr said. “We were ranked fourth in the country, we finished 12-3, and our only loss to a league opponent was in the tournament.”
Hartford head coach Peter Lawrence was thrilled for his team.
“I’m really proud of our players. They were very resilient. We missed our bus for the awards banquet the other night, and we had a tough opponent tonight. But we stayed composed. I told our guys that big-time players step up in big games. They were the No. 4 team in the country for a reason. If you didn’t take smart shots against Blaze Riorden, he was going to make 15 to 20 saves against you.”
Hartford 3 2 1 4 1 — 11
UAlbany 3 2 2 3 0 — 10
Hartford scoring: Justin Huggins 5-2, Griffin Feiner 4-0, Alex Brown 1-3, Conor Van Duzer 1-0, Dylan Jinks 0-2, Doug Biondi 0-1, Trevor O’Brien 0-1. UAlbany scoring: Connor Fields 3-0, Justin Reh 2-0, John Maloney 1-2, Jake Cullen 1-1, Eli Lasda 1-0, Kyle McClancy 1-0, Sean Eccles 1-0, Seth Oakes 0-1.
Goalie saves — Hartford, Ryan Vanderford, 13 saves; UAlbany, Blaze Riorden, 13 saves.