Physical Florida defense powers win

With 1:39 remaining in Saturday’s match, Florida goalkeeper Mikey Meagher came off the field to a well-deserved standing ovation from most of the 708 fans at Dizney Stadium.

Meagher spearheaded the most dominating defensive performance of the season against a quality opponent, powering the Gators’ lacrosse team into the NCAA Final Four with a 15-2 victory against Penn State.

Florida (19-2) will play Syracuse on May 25 in Stony Brook, N.Y. Syracuse defeated North Carolina 17-16 on Saturday.

Saturday’s UF final was the second lowest point total the Gators have allowed in the program’s three-year history. They shut out Fresno State 29-0 on March 28.

It’s also the lowest point total Penn State (12-7) has put up all season. The Nittany Lions’ lowest point totals before Saturday was a 16-6 loss against then-No. 2 Maryland on Feb. 19 and a 14-7 loss against then-No. 1 Northwestern on April 6.

The last time Penn State was limited to two goals or less was during the 2011 season opener at Maryland.

“Defensively, I thought they came out, they played strong, they played with heart, they played with passion,” said UF coach Amanda O’Leary. “And Mikey is a big piece of that puzzle as well — All the pieces of the puzzle just fit well today.”

Meagher didn’t do it alone. Her teammates force teams into difficult shots, usually from beyond the eight-meter line, the fan-shaped arc around the goal.

Florida’s seven defenders set up beyond the eight-meter in a type of matchup zone defense. They each hang with their “man,” until an attacker attempts to penetrate, which is when they clamp down to double team whomever has the ball.

This makes shot attempts inside eight meters rare, and getting any shot off difficult as well. In fact, Penn State’s first shot — and first goal — was more than seven minutes into the match.

Nittany Lions coach Missy Doherty called Florida a “physical” defense.

“They do a good job of collapsing,” Doherty said. “A lot of defenses will play you way out, whereas they really sag in as a unit and protect the eight-meter, so they are not a defense that’s really going to come out at you and make you play.

“When you want to get to the cage, they do a good job of collapsing with each other and making sure a double team is ready to make a stop.”

Florida’s defense is tenacious, even in the open field. They pressure the ball as soon as an opponent gains possession in a full-court press style that forces mistakes, including 12 turnovers on Saturday.

The Gators challenge most every pass, jump into passing lanes and cutoff opponents any time they attempted to make a fast break. Case in point came late in the match when Colleen Shea made a sprinted downfield. She was the first PSU player to almost make it coast-to-coast, only to have the ball knocked away from behind.

“They did a good job of shutting down what we’re good at,” said PSU’s Mackenzie Cyr.

With a little more than five minutes to go, Elaine Welch did have an open shot attempt after a foul gave her free position in front of the goal. Welch shot low, but Meagher smothered it on a short hop to keep the second-half shutout alive.

Meagher, a junior from Liverpool, N.Y., finished with seven saves. Penn State had fewer shot attempts (12) than goals scored by Florida.

“The defense is incredible. Every game they just get better,” Meagher said. “To have those seven in front of me is just — I love them. You can’t ask anything more of them because they go out with such heart and hustle every game.

“No matter what, they do know they have my back and I have theirs.”

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Mike Capshaw brings a wealth of experience to the Gator Country team. He’s been overseeing all editorial aspects of and Gator Country magazine by managing our team of staffers, interns and freelancers. He is now moving into a bigger role as a reporter by covering the football and basketball beats as well as providing coverage of all sports on campus. Mike’s 15 years in the business has included more than six years of covering SEC sports and recruiting at a daily newspaper in Arkansas. He has also helped launch a newspaper, magazines, websites and even a sports talk radio show. Because Mike puts family ahead of his career, he left the place where he was established when his wife received an opportunity to further her career at UF. He took a leap of faith that he could find a job in the Gainesville area and worked for a year at a newspaper group before joining the Gator Country family in November, 2011. Mike has won Florida Press Association awards for Best Sports Game Story and Best Sports Feature Story in the past two years as well as a company-wide award at his former newspaper group that includes some 60 publications, for Excellence in Sports Reporting. You can follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeCapshawGC.