Four weeks into the season, North Carolina was playing like a defending champion — undefeated through three games and winning each by at least five goals. Even Chapel Hill’s water crisis didn’t faze the Tar Heels, as they put on a show in their season opener hastily moved to Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh.
February 25 was supposed to be a marquee match-up. No. 5 Johns Hopkins, also 3-0, visited Fetzer Field for a top-five battle with No. 3 UNC.
But the Tar Heels were outscored in every quarter of a 13-5 loss. Johns Hopkins scored nine second-half goals, five of which came in a late fourth-quarter 5-0 run. UNC had no luck offensively, and Johns Hopkins saved 16 shots.
That wasn’t the worst loss in the world, though. And after a 13-9 win in Colorado over 2015 national champion Denver, the Johns Hopkins loss looked like nothing more than early-season jitters.
Then the floodgates opened.
Over its next eight games, UNC went 2-6 and managed to lose in about every way imaginable. By the end of the regular season, it felt like no North Carolina lead was a safe one.
ACC Tournament magic
The Tar Heels knew their résumé had little appeal to NCAA Tournament selection committee members.
If they even wanted a chance to repeat as national champions, they had to win out. So that’s what they did. During a three-day stretch in late April, UNC looked like last year’s team.
It was the underdog — the fourth seed in a four-team tournament. And that meant a semifinal rematch with Syracuse. North Carolina shocked the Orange with a 13-4 halftime lead.
Then the nine-goal cushion started to disappear. Syracuse’s 8-0 run in the third quarter cut its deficit to two. UNC held on for dear life in the fourth quarter and emerged with a wild 16-15 win.
Two days later, it was time for another rematch — this time against Notre Dame, which beat UNC, 14-13, just over a week before.
But once again, the tournament magic was there. North Carolina added a seventh conference championship to its records with a 14-10 win. Notre Dame never lead in the game.
The ACC Tournament Championship all but guaranteed a tournament selection for 8-7 UNC. The season wasn’t over just yet.
Exit in Albany
One of eight NCAA Tournament at-large bids went to UNC, as was expected. But that meant a road trip.
The defending national champions made their way to central New York to face eighth-seeded Albany. The Great Danes finished their season 14-2 and earned an auto-bid by winning the American East Conference.
Junior attackman Chris Cloutier, the hero of last year’s championship team, kicked off the scoring with a highlight-reel behind-the-back goal.
That goal gave North Carolina its only lead of the game. By halftime, the Great Danes were drubbing the Tar Heels, 14-3. But UNC wasn’t completely done yet.
Fighting for their lives, the Tar Heels rattled off nine consecutive goals while holding Albany scoreless in the entire third and early fourth quarters. 14-3 had turned into 14-12.
One more Albany goal was enough to put the Tar Heels away. A furious comeback fell short, and UNC’s title defense was over before it even started.
North Carolina’s 2017 season will be remembered for its “almosts.” For a team that almost held onto that lead, almost had a better record and almost started another NCAA Tournament run after a two-game rally to win its conference and stay alive.
But "almost" isn't good enough.