It was a play they practiced all week, Derek Maltz said. If JoJo Marasco, Syracuse's star player, becomes locked up near the point, look for an open Luke Cometti. It worked three times Saturday, and Cometti scored with ease.

But with the score tied and just seconds remaining, Cometti's shot slammed into the chest of the Denver goalie and landed in front of the goalmouth. In stepped Maltz, who said he was "basically in the right spot at the right time." The junior attack kept his composure, scooped up Cometti's rebound, and fired the goal that capped a wild comeback and sent Syracuse to a 9-8 win over Denver in the NCAA men's lacrosse semifinal at Lincoln Financial Field.

"I'm just thankful that the ball landed in the back of the net and we're moving on to Monday," Maltz said.

Monday brings the Orange their first championship game since 2009. They'll meet Duke at 1 p.m. at the Linc.

Trailing by two goals, Syracuse stunned the Pioneers with three goals in the last 2 minutes, 35 seconds. Marasco started the rally seven seconds into a two-man advantage and was followed with Cometti's tying goal with 59 seconds left. Maltz's winner came with 20 seconds left.

"We trust everyone on the field, and we just have a lot of faith, and we believe in ourselves," Marasco said. "I think that's why we've been able to come out on top in so many close games."

Maltz and Marasco each finished with a pair of goals, and Cometti scored a game-high-tying three times. Marasco, a senior midfielder, had a game-high five points as he assisted three goals.

The Orange struggled in the first half to figure out Denver goalie Ryan LaPlante, who registered 13 saves on 15 shots. But at halftime Denver coach Bill Tierney stayed true to his season-long strategy and switched his goalie.

Maltz said he was shocked when he saw Jamie Faus in the third quarter. The junior goalie allowed seven goals, and the Orange outscored Denver by four goals after halftime.

"Jamie is the guy who comes in and has done a great job over the year," Tierney said. "Instead of blaming a [22]-year-old kid, you look to Syracuse and say that was a heck of an effort."

Denver opened the first quarter by taking a quick, three-goal lead behind two goals from sophomore attack Eric Adamson. But Syracuse adjusted its defense, focused its long poles on Adamson, and held him scoreless the rest of the way. The Orange defense held leading scorer Wesley Berg pointless behind a combined effort headed by sophomore Sean Young.

The loss denied Denver the chance to be the first team west of the Mississippi River to play for the national title. The upstart program has advanced to two final fours in the last four years.

"They're young people. They'll wake up tomorrow morning, and they'll still be disappointed, but they'll want to know what's for breakfast," Tierney said. "They'll move on."

Contact Matt Breen at mbreen@phillynews.com. Follow @matt_breen on Twitter.