UNIVERSITY PARK — Saturday afternoon was the tale of two halves in the first round of the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament.
The first 30 minutes were the best of times for Penn State — but the other 30 were the worst of times.
Yale rallied from a 5-1 halftime deficit, scoring nine of the first 10 goals after intermission, to knock the Nittany Lions out of the tournament with a 10-7 victory at the Penn State Lacrosse Field.
“I know it hurts,” Penn State head coach Jeff Tambroni said, “and I know every one of our guys in (the locker room) did everything they could to put us in a position to win today but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Colin Flaherty’s three goals and Conrad Oberbeck’s two goals and one assist led the Bulldogs (12-4), who will face either top-seed Syracuse or Bryant in the quarterfinals at Maryland’s Byrd Stadium next weekend. The NCAA win was the first for Yale since 1992.
No. 8 seed Penn State (12-5) got two goal from TJ Sanders and one each for Shane Sturgis, Jack Forster, Nick Dolik, Drew Roper and Gavin Ahern. Pat Manley and Kyle VanThof picked up assists.
After surrendering the opening goal to Yale just over three minutes into the game, the Bulldogs were held scoreless the rest of the first half while Penn State was in control. The Nittany Lions outshot the Bulldogs 21-11, had a 20-8 edge in ground balls and won all seven faceoffs in the half.
“We felt good at halftime, but we knew there were some opportunities that we missed in the first half to put the game away a bit,” said Sanders, who finished with a team-high 44 goals this year. “We learned earlier this season that the game’s never over at half.”
Despite the Nittany Lions holding the statistical advantage in so many areas, including on the scoreboard, the Bulldogs were not worried.
“We felt like we weren’t playing like we normally play,” coach Andy Shay said. “I challenged guys individually ... I said we need better individual performances. It was that simple and these guys respond. They always respond.”
“We knew in the first half we were getting our opportunities but they just weren’t falling,” Oberbeck said. “As we stick to our guns we’ve got to be resilient and we knew our run was going to come. We’ve got to be patient and wait for our time.”
It did not take long for that time to come after the break, with Yale starting its comeback 2:02 into the second half. Just as Penn State had finished killing off a man-advantage, John-William McGovern fired in a shot from the left to switch the momentum.
“That got us going,” Oberbeck said. “Some people use the expression, ‘Breaking the flood gates,’ but that’s what we needed.”
Oberbeck scored two-and-a-half minutes later, but Roper stemmed the tide briefly by taking a long cross-field pass from VanThof. But Flaherty scored twice 59 seconds apart late in the third quarter to cut the deficit to one.
In the third quarter the Bulldogs had a 12-4 advantage in ground balls and a 12-8 edge in shots while also winning 4 of 6 faceoffs — drastically turning the first-half numbers.
“Things just didn’t fall our way in the second half,” Tambroni said. “I felt like every time the ball bounced out, Yale did a great job.”
Ryan McCarthy had the game tied 2:01 into the fourth, but it appeared Penn State was about to retake the momentum. Whistled for two fouls, and forced to play two men down for 30 seconds and one down for a minute, Yale only held onto the ball for less than 20 seconds before a steal helped the Nittany Lions kill off the penalties.
“That was huge for our defense,” Forster said. “Tyler Travis had a nice interception there, which was huge for us. I thought it was definitely going to turn the tides.”
But on the ensuing possession, Penn State could not get off a shot, turned the ball over again and Yale raced down the field with Kirby Zdrill netting the go-ahead score.
Goals from Brandon Mangan, Oberbeck and Flaherty followed for a 10-6 lead before a too-little-too-late goal from Sanders ended the run.
“We were starting to press a little bit, down by a couple of goals,” Tambroni said. “You can probably credit Yale’s defense, they probably caused some turnovers.”
Penn State was outshot 23-15 after halftime as Eric Natale finished with 10 saves for the game. The Nittany Lions held a 36-34 shot advantage for the game.
“It’s tough when nothing’s falling for you and they’re scoring on the other end,” said Forster, who closed his career with 41 goals this season and 104 for his career, second all-time for the program. “It seemed like things just weren’t going our way. It’s tough.”
Goalie Austin Kaut did all he could to give the Nittany Lions a chance to win, especially with some spectacular saves in the first half, finishing with 14 stops.
“As good as we thought their goalie was, he was even better in the moment,” Shay said. “We had a couple shots with a man up that he basically robbed us.”
The faltering in the second half spoiled a season that featured a 10-game win streak and Penn State’s first appearance in the tournament since 2005, but the program is still looking for its first NCAA win.
“We wanted so much more than just a step up,” Kaut said. “We worked hard to get to where we were at today, and we wanted to make it even more special than it already is. We just didn’t come out on top.”