The game could have been North Carolina’s.
With 20 seconds remaining and the UNC men’s lacrosse team trailing by one goal in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Marcus Holman lined up along the right sideline to put up a tying effort. Despite having six goals in hand, Holman instead opted for a pass. He looked to the direction of freshman Chad Tutton, but the ball found the ground instead of his stick.
Denver’s Drew Babb scooped up the groundball and flung it down field to Eric Law, who scored on an empty net as time expired to put the finishing touch on Denver’s upset.
The Pioneers beat eighth-seeded UNC 16-14 and ended the Tar Heels’ season at Fetzer Field on Saturday night.
“We played hard today, we just didn’t do enough to win the game,” coach Joe Breschi said. “But we fought like hell.”
But UNC was lucky to be in the position to threaten in the final minute. The Pioneers dominated possession, winning 23 of 31 faceoffs, and Denver’s Chase Carraro set a Fetzer Field record with 17 groundballs.
UNC sent three different men faceoff X to midfield, but none of them could consistently get the ball to Tar Heel sticks. R.G. Keenan, who won more than 60 percent of his faceoffs throughout the season, went six of 21 on Saturday.
“I thought the big part of the game was possessions,” Breschi said. “A powerful offense like that, you give them 15 extra possessions, they’re going to get some opportunities to score.”
Mark Matthews made the most of those opportunities, particularly early. The senior netted five goals on the game, including three in the first quarter. When UNC tried to shut him down, it left openings for other Pioneers to attack from all angles.
Jeremy Noble set a Denver record with 10 points and seven assists, consistently forcing the Tar Heels to try different defensive schemes. And as Carraro continued to win faceoffs, UNC watched its two-goal halftime lead turn into a three-goal deficit late in the fourth quarter.
Denver went on a 5-0 run during the course of 20 minutes that bridged the third and fourth quarters to grasp control of the contest.
“I had a goal to start the third quarter, and then we just kind of got a little sloppy on the offensive end,” Holman said. “I think that lull kind of gave them some momentum heading into the fourth, and they rode that out.”
Though UNC’s last possession of the game was disappointing, the final seconds of the first half were anything but. Tutton saved a broken play and scored with three seconds remaining before halftime, capping a 4-0 UNC run that sent Fetzer Field into a frenzy.
But the Tar Heels couldn’t continue to overcome Denver’s possession advantage as the game ran its course. Holman scored five goals in the first half, but as the defense keyed on him, he only put up one more tally — 13 seconds into the third quarter.
The teams exchanged leads and tied each other at four different points, but Denver was just a hair too much in the end, putting a bitter cap on the Tar Heels’ season.
“It was a great game. It was a track meet,” Breschi said. “It was almost who had the ball last that was going to get that opportunity.”
UNC had the opportunity, but the game still belonged to Denver.
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