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UNC men's lacrosse earns first Final Four berth since 1993 with 13-9 win over Notre Dame

The North Carolina men’s lacrosse team defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 13-9 to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. 

The final score doesn’t do any justice to how well the Tar Heels played on Sunday afternoon. North Carolina went on an 8-0 run, outscored the Fighting Irish 11-3 over the first three quarters of the game and after the final buzzer sounded, had earned their first trip to the Final Four since 1993.

What happened?

This game was an upset, a massive one, for the unranked Tar Heels (10-6) over third-seeded Notre Dame (11-4). But it didn’t feel like it. Upsets are supposed to be narrow and close, but after a tight first quarter, North Carolina dominated in every aspect of the game and left Columbus, Ohio, with a 13-9 win.

The first quarter played out much like the first matchup between these two teams. That game, on April 23, was a 17-15 win at Kenan Stadium and a come from behind triumph for the Tar Heels. But it was a close and tightly contested affair that wasn’t over until the final whistle.

North Carolina’s Michael Tagliaferri struck first on Sunday, but the Irish matched with a goal of their own a few minutes later. Patrick Kelly scored to put UNC up 2-1, but Notre Dame would match again with 19 seconds left in the first quarter.

On the ensuing faceoff, Chris Cloutier ran down on a fastbreak and fired a rocket into the net, giving the Tar Heels a 3-2 lead. 

Something changed after that goal. UNC scored the next eight goals over the second and third quarters and in the process, locked up a trip to the Final Four.

Who stood out?

Two seniors, Steve Pontrello and Jake Matthai, led the way for North Carolina. On the attacking end, Pontrello scored four goals, all in the third and fourth quarters, to put the game away. He also added two assists.

Matthai stepped up on the defensive end, picking up two ground balls, forcing two turnovers and helping hold Notre Dame to just three goals in the first three quarters of the game.

“Our defense played our best game of the year, and we knew we had to,” Matthai said. “[Goalie Brian] Balkam was really seeing the ball and defensively, as the scheme around him, we were able to get him the shots he needed to see to make his saves.”

When was it decided?

Steve Pontrello scored two goals within the first few minutes of the four quarter to put the Tar Heels up 13-4. You would think the game would be over then, but the Tar Heels were mindful of their last game against Notre Dame and all the things that can happen.

“We’ve seen a lot of things go crazy,” Matthai said. “If you look at the last game against Notre Dame, we won in the very end of the game, scoring five goals very late, so we knew that they were going to press and we knew that they were going to come with all they had. I didn’t know until like two minutes left that we really had it sealed up.”

Notre Dame did press and scored the last five goals of the game, but it was too little, too late.

Why does it matter?

This one means a whole lot for the Tar Heel lacrosse program, for the seniors, for the alumni and for Coach Joe Breschi.

Breschi has been at UNC eight years, but he hasn’t been to the Final Four with the Tar Heels despite eight trips to the NCAA Tournament. Each year, it was a loss in the first round or in the semifinals. The last time the Tar Heels had made the Final Four, way back in 1993, seemed farther and farther away each year.

To win today and to reach the Final Four meant everything to Matthai.

“This is not just a win for this team, it’s a win for the alumni that played before us and all those who wore the jersey before us,” he said. “It means so much. There’s a lot of people cheering us on, a lot of people who are excited who want to share in this win and for them, we need to keep it going.”

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When do they play next?

North Carolina will play in the Final Four against the winner of No. 7 Loyola (Md.) and Towson. The game will be played on May 28 in Philadelphia.

The Tar Heels might have been underdogs coming into their first two games in the tournament against higher seeded Marquette and Notre Dame teams, but they are as dangerous as any team now.

Pontrello best summed up the mood of the team after the big win.

“My confidence is through the roof,” he said. “I know this team’s confidence is through the roof and we can definitely win it all. We are not done yet.”