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Princeton outlasts Lehigh with late-game heroics, faces Dartmouth next

No. 15 men’s lacrosse (6-4 overall, 1-2 Ivy League) will play its final regular-season home game this Saturday against in-conference opponent Dartmouth (1-7, 0-3 Ivy). Barring a miraculous showing from the Big Green, the Tigers should emerge Saturday with a win. Following this upcoming contest, Princeton will go on the road for a pair of crucial matchups against No. 17 Harvard and No. 6 Cornell.

Taking current league standing into account, coach Chris Bates’ side will likely not play another game at 1952 Stadium, as the conference postseason tournament is hosted at the side with the best in-league record. But as Tuesday night showed us, anything is possible this season.

What happened this past Tuesday at Sherrerd Field?

The short answer is: One of the most thrilling endings to a lacrosse game this season.

For game two of a three-game Princeton homestand, then No. 19 Lehigh (9-4, 5-2 Patriot League) brought its three-game winning streak to Sherrerd Field. What the Mountain Hawks left with was a double-overtime, 10-9 loss.

In a fitting beginning to what would be a slugfest, neither team could find the finishing touch for what seemed like an eternity. Lehigh’s stout defense and the seemingly impenetrable goalkeeping of Matt Poillon frustrated a usually prolific Princeton offense. The Mountain Hawk netminder currently has a .576 save percentage, good for seventh in Division I.

One moment of many outstanding displays Tuesday night garnered national attention. Junior midfielder Kip Orban, who had tallied a goal in the third quarter, had his last-second, game-tying goal picked up by ESPN’s SportsCenter, which featured it at No. 9 on its Top Plays segment. Leading up to the play, Lehigh held a 9-8 lead and possession out of a Princeton timeout with 1:10 left.

Hope was fading for the desperate Princeton side. In response, sophomore goalie Matt O’Connor, who briefly replaced junior starter Eric Sanschagrin for this particular play, left the crease to join coverage. This allowed for a double on Lehigh’s Kurtis Kaunas, who had scored the lead-yielding goal just seconds prior. With aggressive defense, freshman defenseman Will Reynolds created a turnover and picked up the ground ball.

Senior midfield Tom Schreiber had what appeared to be a high-quality look at a goal, but, as it had gone all day, Poillon rejected the attempt.

In a characteristic hustle play, Schreiber — his pace was that of one fired from a cannon — chased down the clearing Jimmy Cahill of Lehigh, whom Poillon had hit on the outlet pass. Having turned Cahill, the senior co-captain left the stunned Mountain Hawk open for sophomore defenseman Mark Strabo to strip the ball. A push call awarded Princeton possession with less than 30 seconds to play.

One more Princeton shot resulted in one more Poillon save. But junior attackman Mike MacDonald corralled the deflection and flipped it to Orban. The junior standout ripped an under-hand jumpshot from 15-plus yards. A Lehigh defenseman laid him low on the ground out of the attempt. And, with 2.7 seconds remaining on the clock, the man of the hour did not even have the opportunity to get up, as his teammate MacDonald, somewhat controversially credited with the assist, tackled him back to the turf after seeing the ball finally get past Lehigh’s stalwart keeper.

The game was suddenly drawn at 9-9. But there was no certainty as to who would emerge on top.

With nothing separating the teams, a nail-biting period and a half of extra time followed. Lehigh and Princeton exchanged goalless possessions. A save by Sanschagrin, who had a solid 10 stops on the day, gave the ball back to the Tigers who drew up one of their classic two-man plays in a Bates-called timeout.

Bates’ design had Princeton move the ball around his team’s offensive zone. Once Orban had possession in the top corner of the box, he dodged hard to the middle of the field and drew a likely ill-advised Lehigh slide.

The slide had come from Schreiber’s defender. The co-captain slipped into a prime shooting position and had at least seven yards separating him from the closest defender. It appeared almost too easy, as he ripped an off-hand shot around a desperate Mountain Hawk and past Poillon to the top corner.

2:51 remained on the clock. The score was Princeton: 10, Lehigh: 9. But a sudden victory is awarded to the first overtime goal in NCAA lacrosse. The Mountain Hawks would not have another opportunity, and the Tigers relished the tight victory.

If recognition by one’s peers is an appropriate measure of achievement, then Schreiber is one of the game’s most accomplished. Some of the country’s best, including goalie Scott Rogers, midfielders Kyle Harrison and Paul Rabil and attackman Rob Pannell congratulated the Princeton star via Twitter postgame.

This Saturday’s tilt against the Big Green should not be so much a challenge as a tuneup for the Tigers, who have only three more games to find the requisite postseason form before competing, ideally, in the Ivy League Tournament.

Currently, Dartmouth is the Ivy League’s outlier in terms of quality lacrosse.

The Big Green’s goal differential of -53 is one of only two negative marks in the Ivy League. The Brown men are the only team to be outscored, and their margin is only -7.

If Columbia, the one Ivy school without a men’s varsity side, promotes its club team this year, it would not be clear whether or not the Big Green could dispatch the newly assembled New York City side.

However, Princeton will have to remain taut, appropriately channeling the energy from back-to-back wins in order to prevent a repeat of last year’s horrendous upset loss.

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