Saturday's two men's lacrosse semifinal winners took different paths to victory: Yale caught fire in the first quarter and rode that wave to victory, while Virginia built its offense up until a dramatic conclusion in double overtime.
Now, improbably, the two lower-seed teams from this weekend are set to battle for the title. Will Yale defend its crown? Can Virginia capitalize on its first championship game appearance in eight years? Here are five things to watch for in Monday's title game.
1. Yale's discipline vs. Virginia's hustle
The "ground balls per game" stat is often skewed by having a good FOGO. If the person who takes your face-offs is good at winning them, you'll win a good portion of your team's ground balls. It checks out: Yale, with the best face-off man in the country, ranks fourth in ground balls per game.
But while Virginia's face-off man, Petey LaSalla, is good — he finished top 20 as a freshman — he isn't breaking records, which makes Virginia ranking No. 2 in the nation in ground balls pretty impressive. Largely, that's about hustle. Watching the Cavs practice Friday morning, Lars Tiffany has his team working as hard as any team in the country.
On the other side, Yale doesn't turn the ball over very much. The Elis averaged just 15.24 turnovers per game, good for No. 20 in the country, and turned it over just nine times in the first three quarters on Saturday before a weird end to the fourth quarter.
Ground balls in lacrosse are a little like loose balls in basketball, or loose pucks in hockey: there are some you simply won't get to, but there are times where hustling for a loose ball can turn a game. Virginia got to 44 ground balls against Duke, 26 of which weren't face-off wins.
Between keeping possessions alive and taking the ball away from your opponent, it's a crucial part of the game. Will Yale limit those opportunities? Or will Virginia make the Elis pay for their mistakes?
2. Yale's first-half domination vs. Virginia's comeback power
The two teams' different performances in the semifinal round set up a pretty fun contrast. Yale roared out of the gates, thanks in large part to a dominant showing from FOGO master TD Ierlan. Virginia scored 10 second-half goals after managing just two in the first 30 minutes, and then won in double overtime.
Will the same be true of these teams in the final? Will it be a tale of two halves? I think, if Yale jumps out to a big lead again, Virginia will struggle to rally the way it did on Saturday.
Duke FOGO Brian Smyth is certainly no slouch, but he's not exactly a world-beater, either. Duke's offense struggled to produce the way the other semifinal teams did this season because he won just 51.6 percent of his chances at the X. UVA freshman face-off man Petey LaSalla won 18 of 30 face-offs on Saturday, including the last six of regulation as the Cavs launched their last-ditch comeback in the final 10 minutes.
The same thing won't happen on Monday against Ierlan, who won 72 percent of his face-offs against Penn State and dominated the afternoon. Yale is too good at capitalizing on good chances, and Ierlan makes sure his team gets plenty.
3. Yale vs. Losing, 13-12, in overtime
Virginia seems to have found its secret formula for postseason success. It's a simple two-step process:
Step No. 1: Reach the end of regulation tied, 12-12, no matter what.
Step No. 2: Win.
The Cavs beat Maryland 13-12 in overtime in the quarterfinals, then turned around and beat Duke 13-12, in double overtime. If Yale can't get a high-scoring shootout going early, they'll want to keep an eye on the scoreboard as they approach a dozen goals. It's apparently deadly.
Also of note, Virginia just loves overtime this season. The Cavs have notched five of their 16 wins this year in overtime, going 5-0 in the sudden death period. This isn't surprising. Virginia is a young, high-variance team that uses its emotions well. Guys like Dox Aitken are good at getting fired up and performing well under pressure.
4. Alex Rode vs. Jack Starr
In a matchup focused on scorers and face-off specialists, don't forget about the guys backstopping these two championship teams.
Both goalies made a number of huge stops in Saturday's semifinals, and showed they can keep their respective teams in games.
Starr enters Monday's game with the championship pedigree, winning a national title in his first season with the Elis, while Rode had played just one tournament game — a 14-12 loss to Loyola (MD) — before this year.
Rode, however, proved himself many times over on Saturday by giving Duke a serious fight, turning away 18 of the Blue Devils' 47 shots, his second-highest save total of the season. Starr made just five saves in his team's high-scoring 21-17 win over Penn State.
Both ranked in the bottom 20 in the country in save percentage, Rode at .488 and Starr at .473, but neither team suffered because of their high-powered offenses. The question now is whether one of these two goalies will step up in the biggest game of the season. All it takes is a few well-timed saves to turn a game, or keep one alive.
WHAT'S A FOGO?: The college lacrosse face-off specialist, explained
5. Who wins?
Okay, it's not a matchup. But it is indeed time for a prediction. I got one right and one wrong in the semis, so this one is my rubber match: I think Yale wins its second straight title, 16-12, and it's not particularly close by the end of the fourth quarter.