In the span of less than a week, the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team won and lost a game in the same place — the face-off X.
In a 16-15 win against then-No. 5 Princeton on March 9, timely face-off wins that led to fast breaks and scoring in bunches gave UNC the push it needed late in the game.
With three seconds remaining, sophomore midfielder Chad Tutton fired an overhand bounce shot into the net to give the Tar Heels their third win of the season.
But against No. 17 Duke (5-4, 1-1 ACC) on Wednesday, a dismal showing at the face-off X allowed the Blue Devils to dominate possession in an 11-8 win against No. 8 UNC (3-3, 0-1 ACC).
“You can’t get dominated at the face-off X and in ground balls,” coach Joe Breschi said. “It’s tough to put that kind of pressure on our defense on a consistent basis.”
In the game against Princeton, face-off specialist R.G. Keenan won a career-high 20 face-offs. Keenan also scored his first goal of the season and forced a turnover late in the game when UNC desperately needed one.
But in the Duke game, he was almost nonexistent.
Instead of creating fast-break goals and transition offense against the Blue Devils, Keenan allowed Duke to generate offense from the face-off X.
After going five-for-eight in the first quarter, Keenan had a dismal second quarter, losing all five of his face-offs and forcing Breschi to make a tough decision.
Breschi opted to bench the junior in favor of freshman defenseman Evan Connell.
“(Connell) is pretty aggressive on the face-off guy,” Breschi said. “As opposed to trying to win the face-off, it was more to tie him up, and it worked.”
While Connell won just one of his seven face-offs, UNC was able to limit Duke’s transition offense. That improvement helped UNC’s defense settle in and hold Duke to a mere two shots in the third quarter, neither of which were on goal.
In the fourth quarter, though, Duke sealed the game, scoring three goals to the Tar Heels’ one.
Senior Marcus Holman said that as an attackman, not having the ball on his end of the field made him feel like he was getting stiff.
But the Tar Heel captain wouldn’t use that factor as an excuse.
“We had a couple chances we couldn’t capitalize on,” Holman said. “At the end of the day, that’s the difference.”
On the opposite end of the field, freshman goalkeeper Kieran Burke said UNC settled in and communicated better once Breschi made the change at the face-off X.
As the game wound down, though, an inability to win face-offs when UNC really needed possession killed its chances at a win.
“You can’t win every face- off, just like you can’t make every save. It’s just something you have to face,” Burke said. “It’s tough, but it’s something you need to battle through.”
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