There were points in the first half of this weekend’s Virginia-Loyola matchup when it appeared that the Greyhounds would run away with a victory. Loyola attackman Pat Spencer (3G, 2A) scored his first goal 44 seconds into the game; he dished out his first assist merely 34 seconds later.
The ‘Hoos love to fly around the field, but defensively, they were too active. If you double-team Spencer (55 assists in 2017, second in NCAA), then he’ll find an open teammate, no matter where that teammate is. He’s never caught off-guard, even if you slide to his back.
In the first half, Virginia’s aggressive sliding scheme backfired. Spencer created eight shots for teammates – a stat we track in MLL called “assist opportunities.” For some context, MLL MVP Tom Schreiber averaged 8.1 assist opportunities per game last summer. Most of Spencer’s assist opportunities were six-on-six situations in which he created open looks out of thin air.
There’s a cliché, easier-said-than-done gameplan commonly deployed against elite passers: Turn them into a scorer instead. Sounds simple, right? Let one player eat, but five players starve. There are prerequisites to that gameplan, though.
The first prerequisite: An elite on-ball defender. Senior defenseman Scott Hooper finished fifth in the country with 2.33 caused turnovers per game last season. He was an Inside Lacrosse Media Third Team All-American – but if he keeps performing like he did against Spencer, then he might be a first teamer by the end of the spring.
Trusting Hooper to play on an island against Spencer was the best halftime adjustment of the weekend. Including overtime, Spencer only created three assist opportunities after halftime. Virginia was slower to go. Loyola countered by bumping Spencer up to midfield, putting him in scenarios that demanded a slide. That’s where Virginia’s off-ball defense held up their end of the gameplan prerequisites: Clog passing lanes while recovering.
Every defender was dialed in off-ball in the second half. Two-way midfielders Ryan Conrad and Dox Aitken played huge roles, but not just in transition. Watch Aitken fill the crease as the ‘Hoos send an emergency slide to Spencer. His pass deflection led to a Conrad groundball and a fast break shot on the other end of the field.
The matchup between Hooper and Spencer was the storyline of regulation. So naturally, those two shared the spotlight once Loyola gained possession in overtime. The Greyhounds ran a 1-4-1 set with Spencer isolating up top – but the lack of motion by the off-ball Greyhounds combined with a timely lift by Hooper led to an errant pass.
Two freshmen – Aidan Olmstead (2A) and Kevin Lindley – started their first collegiate games alongside Spencer. They’ll develop chemistry as a unit, making the “turn Spencer into a scorer” strategy a lot less appealing. And unless you have a lockdown defender like Hooper, that strategy isn’t even in the cards in the first place. Chalk it up to a smart adjustment by Lars Tiffany and his staff in yet another classic showdown between the ‘Hoos and the Hounds.