Men's Lacrosse

Ben Williams plagued by inconsistency in ACC tournament loss

Cody Hendrix | Staff Photographer

Ben Williams won the opening faceoff but lost 13 straight before rebounding and finishing 16-of-31 at the faceoff X.

DURHAM, N.C. — Syracuse never knows which Ben Williams it will get at the faceoff X.

Sometimes, it’s the All-American and SU’s career faceoff wins leader. The one that teams are afraid to play. Other times, it’s a mediocre senior battling inconsistency and poor form, beaten up from years of repeatedly jawing with the opposing faceoff specialist for seconds at a time.

In top-seeded Syracuse’s Friday night 16-15 loss to No. 4 seed North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, SU glimpsed both of Williams’ personas. In No. 3 Syracuse’s (11-2, 4-0 ACC) season highlighted by a nine-game win streak, 10 one-goal games and three overtime periods, each faceoff is crucial. Against UNC (8-7, 1-3), Williams finished slightly above 50 percent (winning 16-of-31). But his first-half collapse proved deadly for a Syracuse team that, since joining the ACC, had never lost in the first round of the conference tournament.

“Carolina really played well especially in the first half … got some really big goals off the faceoff,” SU head coach John Desko said.

Since transferring to SU in 2014, Williams’ faceoff percentage has decreased each year. His success rate has dropped 10 percent from his first year at SU through his senior season. He’s even fallen deep out of the top 10 in faceoff percentage where he finished the previous two years, and has won only 54.8 percent of faceoffs, 28th in nation.

After the opening faceoff — a win and eventual Jamie Trimboli goal — something changed. UNC’s Stephen Kelly won the next faceoff. Then the next. Then 11 more in a row. For 21 minutes, 16 seconds, Williams failed to pick up a single faceoff win.

Desko made a lineup change and brought in Danny Varello — he too lost three faceoffs. Desko went back to his senior, hoping to end the Tar Heels domination. He lost again.

In the 21 minutes, 16 seconds, North Carolina rattled off 11 goals. Syracuse matched that with only one — a transition goal when senior midfielder Sergio Salcido was caught playing defense, forced a turnover and broke free to find a cutting Peter Dearth.

But after Williams’ 10th loss and North Carolina up nine, a switch flipped. Williams won all four faceoffs to end the first half.

“It’s something with Ben,” said senior attack Jordan Evans, who had a career-high six assists against UNC. “All of these guys that talk at halftime, Ben doesn’t need a talk … When he wants to put on that switch he’s going do it. He needs to get in his groove.”

To open the third quarter, Williams beat Kelly. The ground ball scrum ended up being pushed all the way back to fifth-year senior goalie Evan Molloy, who picked up the ground ball. Twenty-three seconds later, Salcido found junior midfielder Brendan Bomberry. Then, Williams walked back onto the field.

Unlike after the opening faceoff of the first half, Williams didn’t fall into a hole. He rattled off seven more wins and lost only once. His success translated to the offense, which rattled off an 8-0 run. A seemingly lost game suddenly looked like Syracuse could pull of its largest comeback in program history, dating back to at least 1981, when SU started making detailed stats available.

“You’re just trying to go out and win,” Williams said on April 15 after SU’s first matchup against North Carolina. “You’ve got to keep at it and eventually you’ll come out on top.”

As the Syracuse run thinned out and the fourth quarter entered full swing, Kelly and Williams began back-and-forth play at the faceoff X. While Kelly won the final quarter (4-for-7), he dropped the most important faceoff of the game — the last.

A four-second battle at the faceoff ended with Williams popping up with the ball. Syracuse had one final shot, down one, to send the game into overtime. While a Salcido feed was batted down as time expired, the opportunity wouldn’t have been present without Williams’ second-half turnaround.

“For (Ben), it’s such a psychological game out there,” Desko said. “We just tried to get him to relax at halftime and get back to what he does well.

“Fortunately, he did.”

The turnaround showed that Williams still has some left in the tank. But, the All-American’s motor took nearly two quarters to start up. The Orange can’t afford that time with the NCAA Tournament two weeks away.

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