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Bandits find their finishing kick

It took them half a season, but the Buffalo Bandits finally figured out how to play a strong fourth quarter on Saturday night.

Not coincidentally, their two-game losing streak is history.

The Bandits turned an 11-11 game after three quarters into a 14-11 win over the Colorado Mammoth before 14,669 in the First Niagara Center.

Entering the game, Buffalo (5-5) had been outscored, 40-16, in the final period in its nine previous contests.

“We talked about it going into the fourth quarter,” Bandits coach Troy Cordingley said. “We had been playing well, and we wanted to keep doing the things that we were doing. We said we weren’t hoping to win, we were going out to win this one. The players really responded well. We got some timely goals and some timely saves. That’s how you win in this league. You win as a team.”

Buffalo’s top two scorers did their jobs at the beginning of the period, as Ryan Benesch and Dhane Smith put the Bandits ahead after only 2 minutes, 7 seconds had elapsed. Then Buffalo shut the door on a potent Colorado (4-4) attack, blanking a Mammoth team that came into the contest leading the league in goals per game at 14.

“That’s very satisfying,” Bandits’ Alex Kedoh Hill said. “The last couple of games, we lost them in the fourth quarter. ... We knew we could do it, and we did. It’s awesome.”

While the fourth-quarter performance certainly decided the game, Buffalo never would have been in position to win had it not been for the play of its goaltender. That’s quite a story as well.

Davide DiRuscio received his first start in goal as a National Lacrosse League player because of an injury to usual starter Anthony Cosmo during the week. It can’t be predicted how someone will respond to that situation, especially when the player in question has watched all but 15 minutes of the first half of the season.

But DiRuscio did just fine. He stopped 36 of 47 shots on goal for the night, and was perfect in the clutch during the fourth quarter. A couple of DiRuscio’s saves near the end prevented the Mammoth from sniffing a comeback.

“It was a great night,” the rookie said. “I was a little nervous at the first part of the game, but then I settled in. In the second half, I was a lot more confident.”

“Dave did really well,” Hill said. “I was trying to build off his efforts.”

The game means that DiRuscio is no longer an unknown quantity at the sport’s highest level. That’s a valuable piece of information as the Bandits go forward from here.

“We’ve always had confidence in Davey,” Cordingley said. “Coz is our guy, and Davey knows that, but the team and coaching staff will feel a heck of a lot better when you see a performance like that.”

There were several other Buffalo standouts in the contest. Hill had a hat trick for the second straight game and seems to be improving by the quarter.

“He’s definitely getting a lot more responsibility from the coaching staff, and he’s been thriving,” Cordingley said. “Here’s a kid that gives 100 percent every single shift. It’s live or die for him every single shift. He has so much passion for the game.”

Benesch also had three goals, while Dhane Smith had six points and Mark Steenhuis added five. John Tavares, back from the injured list, had a goal and three assists in his 300th game in the NLL.

On defense, the Bandits had trouble with Colorado’s big guns: Adam Jones (eight points), John Grant Jr. (eight points) and Drew Westervelt (four goals). But they were blanked when it mattered most.

Buffalo gets a little time to enjoy this one, thanks to a break in the schedule.

“We’ll have a good practice on Tuesday, and then have the weekend off,” Cordingley said. “Then we’ll get ready for the best team in the league.”

That’s the Toronto Rock, which will play the Bandits in a home-and-home series beginning in Buffalo on March 13.