Untimely defensive lapses prove costly for Michigan men's lacrosse in loss to Notre Dame

Tuesday, March 19, 2019 - 11:52pm

Alex Buckanavage had a hat-trick in Michigan's 12-9 loss to Notre Dame on Tuesday.

Alex Buckanavage had a hat-trick in Michigan's 12-9 loss to Notre Dame on Tuesday. Buy this photo
Zachary Goldsmith/Daily

With a minute left in the first half, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team had spent twice as long down a man as No. 11 Notre Dame, trailed in shots taken by six, leaned on fifth-year senior Tommy Heidt’s five saves and won only two of the contest’s 13 faceoffs.

It didn’t matter. The Wolverines trailed the Fighting Irish by only a goal. Halftime, and the chance to regroup before the deciding 30 minutes, beckoned Michigan like a desert oasis.

But it proved to be a mirage. Notre Dame’s lead grew twice and left the Wolverines with a halftime task three times as big as they expected less than a minute before.

The Fighting Irish’s two goals came from Thomas McNamara and John Hallenbeck, making the score 7-4 and continuing a concerning trend. Late-period, momentum-shifting goals have plagued the Wolverines so far this season, and they’re not going without notice.

“It’s something that we’re really focusing on,” said Michigan coach Kevin Conry. “In that last minute of the quarter, those are really, really important times where fundamentals are the most important thing. And we weren’t very fundamental on that pick, and gave the guy just a little extra room. But we’re learning.”

Michigan’s two primary faceoff men, sophomore Connor Cronin and junior Matt Dellacroce, have been out with injuries, causing a faceoff-by-committee approach. Between junior defenseman Finn Goonan, freshman midfielder Andrew Russell and senior defenseman Nick DeCaprio, the Wolverines went 4-for-24 from the X against the Irish. The lack of competency at the X has made maintaining possession more difficult and contributed to the Wolverines’ poorly-timed lapses on defense.

It took most of the third quarter for Michigan to come roaring back to tie it. Senior midfielder Justin Gibbons’ goal with 55 seconds left in third quarter seemed to have compensated for the Wolverines’ defensive gaffes, and the building momentum was a promising sign headed into the game’s final 15 minutes.

But yet again, the final minute betrayed Michigan. Notre Dame’s Griffin Westlin sprinted through a fatigued Wolverine defense to reclaim the lead with 1.4 seconds to play.

After leaning on offense and goaltending for three resilient quarters, Michigan fell asleep in its own end at the most inopportune times. A combination of fresh but inexperienced legs on the field and tired, experienced ones made errors on defense and took ill-advised penalties. The fourth quarter proved to be the most lopsided, as Notre Dame scored three unanswered goals — two within the first five minutes — to seal the victory.

“It’s hard when they go on a run and you’re deficient in the faceoff X,” Conry said. “That’s been one of the things that’s been plaguing us as this little stretch here continues. … I thought Notre Dame had a smart adjustment where they started to suck the life a little bit out of the ball and use the whole shot clock and that got our guys tired.”

The Wolverines have the offensive skill and ability to beat highly ranked opponents, but won’t until they play good enough defense to go on prolonged scoring runs of their own. No matter how big of an impact it had, injuries to Michigan’s faceoff men aren’t entirely to blame. And Conry knows it.

“When we could ride and create that tempo, it doesn’t really matter about our faceoff deficiencies,” Conry said. “Health is something we need to keep working on. We need to get some guys back, that’s for sure. But overall, our attention to detail and our fundamentals are something we will consistently focus on.”