In a battle between two of the top five offenses in men’s college lacrosse, the Rutgers defense proved dominant en route to earning the program its first NCAA Tournament victory in 31 years on Saturday. After the first round matchup against No. 10 Lehigh was tied 2-2 through one period of play, the No. 9 Scarlet Knights controlled the action the rest of the way to clinch a 12-5 win. It was just the second defeat of the season for the Patriot League champions (10-2).
Momentum shifted in the second period as Rutgers scored three times and the defense clamped down to enter halftime with a 5-2 halftime lead. In fact, Lehigh was held scoreless for almost 27 minutes until Cole Kirst scored his only goal of the game to make it 6-3 with just over five minutes remaining in the third period. In the much anticipated matchup between the Kirst brothers, Connor took over the fourth period for the Scarlet Knights. He scored three times in the final frame to seal the victory.
While Lehigh dominated on face-offs as expected with a 16-5 advantage, Rutgers didn’t allow it to matter much. They even won three in the fourth period, as Jonathan Dugenio found Connor Kirst for two of his goals which came just seven seconds apart.
“To win an NCAA Tournament game, that’s really hard to do,” attackman Connor Kirst said. “You have to put a whole season together. We brought it all together today to put our best foot forward and get a nice win. It’s really special.”
Kirst’s late father, Kyle, was the starting goalkeeper on the last Rutgers team to win an NCAA Tournament game in 1990 before today. Connor’s brother came up big for the Scarlet Knights between the pipes on Saturday, as Colin Kirst made 17 saves against his former team.
“We played a great game,” goalkeeper Colin Kirst said. “Our defense executed really well, our offense played well. It was a lot of fun out there. It’s pretty surreal. I’m just grateful to have this opportunity. We’re enjoying every day we have with the team, and seizing the moment.”
The defense overall was tremendous and was perfect with clears until late in the game, executing 25 of 27 total.
Rutgers was able to carve up the Lehigh zone defense and maintain long possessions, which led to a 42-35 shot advantage and a 29-22 edge in shots on goal. The Mountain Hawks were without leading scorer Tommy Schelling who was out with an injury.
The big three up front delivered for Rutgers as Kieran Mullins, Adam Charalambides and Connor Kirst all had hat tricks. Mullins added two assists and Charalambides, who had one assist, moved into second place all-time for most goals in program history. He also moved into fourth place for points in program history.
The Scarlet Knights have defeated five ranked foes this season, the most since 2003.
Rutgers (9-3) will take on No. 1 seed North Carolina next Saturday at Hofstra University. The Tarheels are 12-2 and blew out Monmouth 16-4 in the opening round. It will be a tall task for the Scarlet Knights, but the program has nothing to lose after registering its biggest victory in over three decades on Saturday. If they can play a complete game on both ends like they did in the win over Lehigh, RU will have an opportunity to pull the upset.