As the final second ticked off the clock, Evan Molloy heaved the ball down field and breathed a sigh of relief.
Syracuse narrowly escaped the first round of the NCAA Championship tournament. Matched against the Yale Bulldogs, Syracuse pulled off a come-from-behind 11-10 victory to advance to the second round. Defense, particularly Molloy’s performance, was essential to the Orange win.
“If someone had shown me the stats before the start of the game, I’m not so sure it would have been Syracuse on top of the scoreboard,” Syracuse head coach John Desko said. “The guys gutted it out, and we played some very good defense down the stretch.”
Faceoffs plagued the Orange throughout the night. Syracuse’s Ben Williams struggled against Yale’s Connor Mackie, going 1-12 before being replaced by Dan Varello in the third quarter. Varello did not fare much better, only winning three of his ten matchups against Mackie.
Yale also outshot the Orange during the first half. In the first period alone, the Bulldogs numbered 20 shots to Syracuse’s five. While Syracuse tightened things up as the game went on, the final margin was still 42-29.
Although Syracuse struck first with a goal by Brendan Bomberry, back-to-back Yale goals quickly put the Orange in a 2-1 hole. From that point on, Syracuse’s offense struggled to keep the score even. Yale’s largest lead of the game came midway through the third quarter, with the Orange trailing 7-4.
But the efforts of Molloy and the Orange defense kept that margin from growing insurmountable. Under duress for much of the night, Molloy recorded 15 saves, his second-highest total of the season. The Orange also executed 15-15 clears and shut out Yale on three extra-man opportunities.
“Defensively, we were giving up shots that I could see. I think the difference was I saw the ball well on the inside,” Molloy said. “Really, it was just a great team defensive effort…everybody played their best game, today, and that’s why we won.”
Yale’s Ben Reeves posed the greatest challenge to Molloy. Burning Molloy for four goals and recording two assists, the Orange seemed to have no answer for Reeves’s offensive performance.
“He’s just a great shooter,” Molloy said of Reeves. “I’ll take the blame for all of those [goals].”
Even with Reeves’ standout performance, Molloy’s work in the goal kept the Orange in a position to make a comeback. Fighting back from a three-goal deficit, the Orange reclaimed the lead in the closing second of the third quarter and added to that lead early in the fourth.
Yale threatened to retake the lead after Reeves scored two goals late in the fourth quarter. Tied 10-10 with under three minutes to play, Molloy picked up his fifteenth save on a shot by Yale’s Brendan Mackie. The crucial save set up Stephen Rehfuss’s game-winning goal with 2:09 left in the game.
“We got some great stops defensively, especially with [Molloy] in the cage,” Desko said, crediting the goalkeeper with setting up the opportunities for the Orange in the second half. “To have fifteen saves in a game like this…it’s a great effort by these guys up here and [Molloy] to make some great saves down the stretch.”
The final moment of drama came in the game’s closing seconds when Nick Mariano celebrated early by flicking the ball into the air. Picked up by Yale’s Phil Huffard, the goalkeeper fired a prayer shot towards the Syracuse net. In place, as always, Molloy snatched the ball out of the air and launched it back as his teammates rushed the field to celebrate yet another one-goal victory.
“If I have to step up for my teammates, they’re confident that I can do it and I’m going to do my best to [step up]” Molloy said. “If I’m asked to make the stops, I’ll try my hardest.”