But the defense’s role didn’t stop there. UNC’s defensemen carried the squad in the early minutes, scoring three of the Tar Heels’ first six goals.
“(They’re) guys that don’t get all the credit and all the stats, but they were really fueling our fire,” senior Davey Emala said. “They were the spark for our team and they put us in an outstanding position.
“But we knew we had to play for 60 minutes.”
While the Tar Heels had a solid handle on the first 30 minutes of the game, the second half proved to be a completely different challenge.
The face-off woes that didn’t seem to affect UNC early on started leading to lost possession time, and Denver’s shots that previously hit pipes started hitting netting.
Slowly but surely, the Pioneers rallied their way back into the game with more possessions, thanks to Chase Carraro’s efforts at the face-off X. Pioneers Welsey Berg and Eric Law also combined for seven goals on 13 shots.
“We have been working throughout the year on playing a full game,” senior defenseman Kieran McDonald said in a press conference after the game. “Today was one of those days where we battled and we got a little bit tired.”
While the UNC defense slowed, the Tar Heels’ offense struggled to find the cage.
“I think we couldn’t really get into a rhythm in our six-on-six offense all game,” senior captain Marcus Holman said in the press conference. “Obviously two goals in the second half is not going to get it done, especially against a fantastic offensive team like Denver.”
With just minutes left and a one-point lead, UNC’s offense had a chance to sway the momentum of the game. But UNC
lacked its signature speed, and the Tar Heels drew a stalling violation that gave the ball back to Denver.
After a quick score by the Pioneers, one last face-off win gave Denver the game-winning opportunity it needed.
With 15 seconds left, freshman Kieran Burke made a save on Eric Adamson’s shot to seemingly force overtime.
But Eric Law was there for the rebound to finish off the Tar Heels, and by doing so, extended UNC’s 20-year championship weekend drought.
“It wears on you when you play a lot of defense like we did,” Breschi said. “Someone making a play at the end was going to be the difference.”
And to the chagrin of the Tar Heels, it would be Eric Law — not a Tar Heel — that would make that play.