North Carolina junior transfer Andy Craven returned to the College of Charleston Saturday night to play some of his former teammates.
But it was another Tar Heel forward who made the difference in his own return in No. 2 UNC’s 3-0 win against the Cougars (6-8-0).
Rob Lovejoy, who missed the first 12 games for UNC (11-1-1) while recovering from offseason surgery, scored a hat trick Saturday night after coming in as a substitute in the 31st minute. It was the first hat trick by a UNC player since Alex Dixon in 2009.
“He knows what to expect, so it was natural for him to be able to jump back in and get in the groove,” coach Carlos Somoano said. “And he got a just reward.”
Lovejoy is the only starting forward to return from last year’s NCAA championship team. He scored seven goals and had five assists in the championship campaign.
“This year we have a bunch of new guys in there, and I don’t think we’ve peaked yet,” Lovejoy said.
The Tar Heels had averaged 1.5 goals per game before Saturday night, and in less than a half of playing time, Lovejoy became UNC’s third-leading scorer — behind Craven and Martin Murphy, who have four goals each.
“It’s going to take some time to get accustomed to — I was exhausted after about 20 minutes out there,” Lovejoy said. “But knowing that I’ve worked so hard and have something to show for it means the world to me.”
Lovejoy’s first goal came on a corner kick by freshman Danny Garcia, who leads the team with five assists this season.
“He sees the field better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Lovejoy said. “His size does not interfere with his capability at all. He is able to time everything, and it seems like it comes so natural to him.”
Garcia was not credited with an assist on Lovejoy’s first goal because UNC defenders Jonathan Campbell and Jordan Gafa helped the ball along after the corner kick. Lovejoy scored the other two goals unassisted.
To complement Lovejoy’s offensive outburst, the Tar Heels’ defense recorded its 10th clean sheet of the season. It has only allowed three goals in 13 games.
“We have a very good chemistry — everything is very natural,” Gafa said. “It’s really just about being in tune with each other and being able to organize back there.”
The Tar Heels are slightly behind the pace set last year by Creighton, who set an NCAA record by conceding just five goals all season.
UNC has already proven its defensive prowess, and Lovejoy’s return gives the Tar Heels speed and width in attack.
“Playing with him on the right, it’s so easy to communicate, and I’m happy to have him back,” Gafa said.
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