No way a team could lose six times and still make the NCAA Tournament. No way could it come back with less than five minutes remaining against the No. 1 team in the country. And no way could it survive going down a man in overtime and walk out on top.
All season long, the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team kept hearing what it couldn’t do. But when its season was on the line, time and time again the Tar Heels proved that they weren’t what people thought they were.
And with a overtime win against Maryland on Monday in Philadelphia, the Tar Heels showed they were the only thing that mattered in the end — national champions.
Expectations were low when the Tar Heels began their season back in February. UNC was picked by the media to finish last in the ACC, and through the first six games of the season, the team played how many thought they would.
North Carolina had lost a talented group of seniors from the year before and used the first month of the season to figure out its personnel. Midfielders Chris Cloutier and Steve Pontrello were converted to attackers, and the team struggled offensively on the way to a 3-3 record.
After a loss against Massachusetts on March 12, the Tar Heels held a meeting in a hotel room in Amherst, Mass. Here, the team talked about who it wanted to be, and what kind of legacy it wanted to leave behind.
“We let everything out on the table ...” junior defenseman Austin Pifani said at a press conference on May 24. “I think that loss in particular ... it was a special moment. It definitely didn’t feel good, but having those moments happen during the season can help bring you together.”
After the Massachusetts loss, North Carolina went 4-2 heading into its regular-season finale against No. 1 Notre Dame. The Tar Heels likely needed a win to have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament, but found themselves down 15-10 with 10 minutes left in the game.
No one would have batted an eye if the Tar Heels accepted defeat, but instead the team fought back. From that moment on, North Carolina outscored the Fighting Irish 7-0 to win the game and earn the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament.
UNC ended up losing in its first conference tournament game, but it did just enough to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. As they did before the season, the media didn’t expect the Tar Heels to make any noise against some of the best teams in the country, but this ended up being a blessing in disguise.
“I continue to talk about there’s no pressure on these guys. None ...” Coach Joe Breschi said after UNC’s win over Loyola in the national semifinals. “Nobody expected — we barely got in the tournament. Eight minutes to go in the first Notre Dame game we may not be here. So it was almost a relief that we got in.
“And now we have an opportunity to just let our hair down and play. And that’s what these guys are doing.”
Breschi couldn’t sleep the night before the championship game. He was still searching for what he was going to tell his team at breakfast in the morning.
After thinking for a while, he flipped on the TV in his hotel room. The face of Ray Lewis, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, popped up on the screen. It was footage of a speech Lewis made during the Ravens’ improbable 2000 Super Bowl run.
“Kick the doors in,” Lewis told his teammates.
Breschi, a Baltimore native, told his players the story of Lewis and his team the next morning. And by the end of the game Monday, the Tar Heels had knocked the door over onto their opponents.
It could have gone differently, sure. No one would have blamed UNC if it gave up a goal with under a minute left. No one expected them to be able to survive a man down in overtime after Luke Goldstock was called for a penalty with 3.9 seconds left in regulation.
“They had my back,” Goldstock said.
The Tar Heels had nothing to lose, and played like it with their backs against the wall — from Zach Powers throwing his body toward a shooting Terrapin to Brian Balkam’s subsequent save, to Cloutier’s game-winner at the other end.
No one thought the game would play out the way it did in the last few minutes. If they did, maybe UNC would have folded under the pressure.
Maybe the Tar Heels would have been what people thought they would be instead of what they ended up becoming.