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Joshua Carlson had one goal and one assist in Denver's NCAA quarterfinal win over Syracuse.

Denver Dictates Tempo, Books Ticket to Championship Weekend

May 19, 2024
Patrick Stevens
John Strohsacker

TOWSON, Md. — Upon review, it’s Denver that came out of Sunday’s NCAA quarterfinal at Towson’s Unitas Stadium with an end to its absence from Memorial Day Weekend.

The fifth-seeded Pioneers used a five-goal run in the middle of the game — plus two scores upheld by replay — to muscle past fourth-seeded Syracuse 10-8 and earn their first trip to the semifinals since 2017.

Four players scored twice for Denver (13-3), which will face top-seeded Notre Dame (14-1) on Saturday in Philadelphia after extending its first season under coach Matt Brown. He succeeded Hall of Famer Bill Tierney, who retired from college coaching after last season.

“This is our sixth final four,” Brown said. “If you were to ask me when I stepped foot on campus as a young freshman [in 2001] if that were to be the case, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But thanks to the legend, Coach T, for bringing that championship mentality out west to Denver. He’s built a culture, and these guys lived up to it.”

Michael Leo had three goals for the Orange (12-6), who trailed the entire second half and struggled to deal with some uncharacteristic shooting woes as well as Denver’s physicality and ability to dictate tempo.

There were also two Pioneers goals that went to replay. One, a Cody Malawsky score that made it 5-3 early in the third quarter, trickled over the goal line and led to an official-initiated review, where it was upheld.

The other was Michael Lampert’s tally right at the shot clock buzzer with 44 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Syracuse coach Gary Gait challenged the call but was denied, costing him a timeout as Denver went up 10-5.

“They couldn’t have been overturned,” Gait said. “I think both of them were so close that whatever the refs’ initial call was going to be was what it was. We didn’t get the call, but the refs called it their way and they were going to stay because they were that close. … You had to look at them because they were that close.”

Syracuse was denied its first semifinal appearance since 2013. The Orange have dropped their last four quarterfinal appearances after going 27-3 in the round prior to 2015.

The last three quarterfinal losses predate Gait’s stint as the Orange’s coach, one that has progressed sensibly over the last three seasons. Syracuse struggled to a 4-10 mark in his first season, played a bunch of young guys and became progressively more dangerous en route to an 8-7 record last spring and this year won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 2017.

“I think we’ve made tremendous progress from my first year to this year, and I think we’re going to continue to improve,” Gait said.

But Sunday illustrated some of the benefits that experience and maturity can bestow upon a team. Denver has fifth-year players scattered throughout its defense — long pole AJ Mercurio, defensemen Jack DiBenedetto and Adam Hangland and short-stick defensive midfielder Jake Edinger among them — and they created headaches for Syracuse’s stars all day.

Neither Owen Hiltz nor Joey Spallina took a shot in the first half as Denver built a 4-3 lead. Hiltz would finish with a goal and an assist — including the score that got the Orange within 10-8 with 3:18 to play — but Spallina was held without a point.

“As a defense, we believe in each other,” DiBenedetto said. “We don’t care too much about matchups. We have our opening matchups, but if we need to slide to help out, we’re willing to do it as a team.”

Spallina’s best scoring opportunity came in one of the rare transition opportunities Syracuse generated. But he fired a shot off the pipe with 2:25 remaining and Denver reclaimed possession, and the Orange were never able to apply significant pressure on goalie Malcolm Kleban (10 saves) and the Denver defense the rest of the way.

“I didn’t want to get in a track meet with them, that’s for sure,” Brown said. “You could see when they had those opportunities, you could see their momentum building.”

Ultimately, Denver worked the shot clock effectively for much of the fourth quarter, trimming Syracuse’s opportunities to climb back into it. And it squashed the opportunity for a team with a loaded sophomore class to burst back into the latter stages of the tournament after an absence of more than a decade.

Still, the Orange are clearly coming.

“I promise you we’re going to be in this exact same spot,” Leo said.

For as much of the mix of frustration and bravado is understandable from Syracuse’s talented core, both relief and appreciation were evident from Denver. The Pioneers missed three of the previous four NCAA tournaments and bowed out in the first round of the 2021 event at home.

Spurred on by the regret felt after an ouster in the Big East semifinals this month at Villanova, Denver booked a trip back to Philadelphia — the site of its historic 2015 championship — but has no interest in merely settling for one last trip back to the East Coast this season.

“It’s been a while,” Mercurio said. “We have a bunch of fifth years and seniors, and this is what we dreamed about forever. It’s all coming together, and we’re super-pumped for it.”