Finale against Notre Dame will once again shape UNC men's lacrosse's season

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The North Carolina men's lacrosse team shows emotion after losing to No.1 Syracuse 12-11 in overtime on Saturday.

Facing then-No. 1 Notre Dame and in danger of falling to 7-6 on the season — which would all but guarantee they would watch the 2016 NCAA Tournament from Chapel Hill instead of playing in it — the Tar Heels trailed the Fighting Irish by five goals with 10 minutes left to play.

Of course, we know how things turned out. UNC rallied to take down Notre Dame, 17-15. Fifteen days later, the Tar Heels earned an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. And 22 days after that, North Carolina became the first unseeded team to ever win the national title.

Saturday — 364 days after an unimaginable comeback kicked off a championship run — the Tar Heels (6-6, 1-2 ACC) take on the Fighting Irish (6-3, 1-2 ACC) once again.

And this time, while it might be hard to believe, the stakes are even higher.

Despite entering the 2017 season as the No. 1 team in the country, North Carolina has hardly looked capable of repeating as national champion. The Tar Heels are 3-6 over their past nine games, a stretch that includes embarrassing losses to Johns Hopkins and Maryland and collapses against Duke and Syracuse.

Against the Blue Devils on April 2, UNC scored just one of the game’s last nine goals en route to a 12-8 defeat. Similarly, the Tar Heels gave up a four-goal lead in the fourth quarter to the No. 1 Orange last Saturday before eventually falling in overtime.

If North Carolina was able to close out both of those games, it would sit undefeated in conference play heading into the final game of the regular season. Couple that with an 8-4 overall record, and the Tar Heels would have been in prime position to lock up an NCAA Tournament spot.

But, alas, that’s not how things worked out.

Instead UNC sits at .500 overall and 1-2 in ACC play. The Tar Heels will still make the conference tournament thanks to Virginia (0-4 ACC), but tomorrow’s regular season finale — unlike last season’s — is not a “win and you’re in” scenario.

Instead, the matchup with the Fighting Irish will be solely for momentum. North Carolina likely needs to win the ACC Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. There are some concrete things on the line — whichever team wins will claim the No. 3 seed and will face Duke in the ACC semifinals on April 28 — but a victory would do as much for the Tar Heels’ mentality as it would for their tournament resume.

If UNC falters once again, however, it will ride a two-game losing streak into a rematch with the nation’s No. 1 team in Syracuse. And while head coach Joe Breschi and co. have shown they’re capable of overcoming the odds and doing some truly spectacular things, it would be a tall order to rally together and save their season once again.

@jbo_vernon

sports@dailytarheel.com

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