Updated: Gators dismantle Denver for Big East tourney title, to host NCAA opener

The Gators celebrate their win Saturday over Denver in the Big East Lacrosse Championship final at the Donald R. Dizney Stadium. The Gators beat the Pioneers 18-6. [Cyndi Chambers/Correspondent]

[Updated: 5-6-18, 10:30 p.m.] Florida junior Lindsey Ronbeck continued her stellar offensive play in the finals of the Big East Tournament.

But the Gator defense was as dominant in a 18-6 win over Denver in the lacrosse tournament finals Saturday at Dizney Stadium.

No. 6 Florida (16-3) forced two shot clock violations and held No. 19 Denver (12-6) to just one goal in the first half in building a 10-1 halftime lead.

“They have gotten better each and every game and I think today was probably one of their best efforts,” Florida coach Amanda O’Leary said. “You saw it from every single one of them. They all stepped up. They all had a job to do and they all did their jobs”

Florida finished its four-year affiliation with the Big East with its fourth straight league tournament title and 33rd straight conference win. The Gators are one of six teams that will join the American Athletic Association next season, a list that includes Vanderbilt, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Temple and East Carolina.

“It really means a lot, especially for this senior class,” Florida senior attacker Shayna Pirreca said. “We went four-for-four, Big East championships, it’s really cool especially because we won’t be in the Big East next year. It makes it that much sweeter.”

Ronbeck scored seven goals against Denver and 15 for the tournament to earn MVP honors. Ronbeck also recorded her 200th career point during the win.

“This weekend it was my weekend, but once NCAAs start, it could be another person’s game,” Ronbeck said.

Ronbeck scored five of her seven goals in the first half. Florida jumped ahead 7-0 on a Ronbeck free position goal with 16:35 left in the first half before Denver scored its lone goal in the half unassisted by Caitlin Derry with 13:38 left.

“All the defenders played unbelievable,” Pirreca said. “And I think they were really composed. Sometimes we try for checks and foul and I think today we were just really, really composed and played really well.”

The Gators managed to extend their lead to 14-4 in the second half and were able to stave off a final Denver rally. Pirreca and Madi Hall each were whistled for yellow cards within a 10-second stretch, forcing Florida to play two players down with a 14-5 lead for a two-minute stretch. But thanks to three big saves from goaltender Haley Hicklen, Florida was able to minimize the damage, allowing just one goal during that stretch.

Hicklen finished with six saves in the second half and nine saves for the game.

“She came up with some big stops when we needed them,” O’Leary said. “Again, she’s always just that steady kid in the goal cage. Really smart. To be two down and for us to hold, that was quite an accomplishment.”

Florida will learn the team it hosts in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday night when the draw is announced. The Gators are hoping to springboard this year’s Big East Tournament win into a deeper postseason run. Last season, Florida was knocked out by USC at home in its first NCAA Tournament game.

“It’s hard to beat a team twice,” Ronbeck said. “So being able to win after beating Denver once in the regular season, and now for the championship, I think that’s huge. And I think it gives us a lot of confidence. Our defense was playing as a unit, our offense lost our way a little bit in the second half but got it back together. I think it’s big for our confidence, knowing we can all stay together and work as one whole unit.”

NCAA Tourney: Big East champion Florida received the sixth overall seed in the 26-team NCAA Tournament on Sunday night. The Gators (14-3) have earned a first-round bye, as well as first and second-round hosting rights at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.

Florida will play host to Colorado (13-5) and Jacksonville (16-3) this weekend. Colorado will play Jacksonville at 4 p.m. Friday. The winner advances to play the Gators 12 p.m. Sunday. UF defeated both teams earlier this season.

The top-eight seeds in the tourney are 1. Maryland, 2. North Carolina, 3. James Madison, 4. Boston College, 5. Stony Brook, 6. Florida, 7. Towson and 8. Loyola Maryland.

Call the Gator Ticket Office at (352) 375-4683 or 800-344-2867 for information.