DURHAM — Duke had a senior All-American. North Carolina had a freshman.
The odds weren’t in their favor, but the No. 5 Tar Heels and face-off specialist Stephen Kelly were poised to contain the No. 4 Blue Devils’ Brendan Fowler in an attempt to get the lacrosse team’s first ACC win of the season.
And for four quarters they did just that, but in an overtime game UNC needed more than four quarters of stellar play at the X, as it lost 9-8 at Koskinen Stadium Saturday.
“That’s one of the parts of the game where it’s a tough outcome,” senior defenseman Jordan Smith said. “You don’t really know who’s going to win them all. (Kelly) did a really great job.”
Coming into the Tar Heels rivalry game against Duke, the team had a history of troubles against Duke’s face-off specialist.
Last season Fowler gave one of UNC’s all-time best face-off men, R.G. Keenan, fits winning 42 of the 61 face-offs in two games and forcing UNC to come up with creative, yet ineffective, ways to approach him.
Saturday that was not the case.
“(Kelly)’s never faced Fowler before, so I think Fowler was trying to figure him out,” coach Joe Breschi said after admitting he wasn’t sure how Kelly was so successful.
Keenan, who has been out due to injury, was replaced by Kelly who was determined to not be another UNC face-off man to fall victim to Fowler’s quickness at the draw.
“Obviously, he’s the greatest face-off guy in the country,” Kelly said. “But I’ve never gone against him. I was confident in myself and my wings.”
After Fowler won the first face-off of the game cleanly, it looked like it might be a rough day for the youngster, but two face-off violations by Fowler in the first half made the All-American timid as the game progressed.
“Whenever a faceoff guy gets two violations, because three is a penalty, he’s probably going to be a little less antsy on the whistle,” Kelly said. “It let me get in a little bit of a rhythm.”
Kelly used that rhythm accompanied by support from aggressive, scrappy wing players like Evan Connell and Mark McNeill to win 13 20 face-offs — something Keenan couldn’t do.
Kelly’s rhythm didn’t extend to the UNC offense, though.
Being held to just eight goals, UNC tallied its lowest score of the season and only had three goal scorers in Jimmy Bitter, Joey Sankey and Michael Tagliaferri.
But a valiant effort from the defense allowed UNC to force overtime by limiting Duke’s prolific offense to an equally underwhelming eight goals.
And thus it was up to the freshman to win one more critical face-off at the start a golden-goal overtime and give his team the possession time needed to seal a victory.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
As Kelly went for his go-to pinch and pop move that helped him snag five ground balls, the All-American with long-flowing, bronze locks was prepared.
Fowler’s quick hands that were handcuffed by violations early in the game beat Kelly to the punch, and even though Kelly fought to hold off a fast break, Fowler was able to rake the ball out to his team giving them one final, game-winning possession.
“I wish I could have that one back,” Kelly said. “But it is what it is.”
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