Facing the No. 4 Blue Jays (4-0), the No. 3 Tar Heels (3-1) had been mostly shut down through 35 minutes of play. With just over 10 minutes remaining in the third period, the Tar Heels had failed to find any sort of groove. Turnovers and fouls continued to set UNC back, stunting any positive momentum the team tried to build.
Still, a spirited performance from the Tar Heel defense had them just two goals behind.
“We were right there midway through the third quarter,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “But we just weren’t getting the momentum of a big goal here or there.”
An interference penalty by the Blue Jays gave the Tar Heels a man-up opportunity — and a chance to come within one. Perhaps it would be the momentum goal Breschi’s group was looking for.
But two errant shots and a turnover later, any hope of a momentum goal had all but disappeared. Just 40 seconds after UNC had earned its man-up opportunity, the Blue Jays barreled down the field to score a goal of their own — the first of a 9-3 run en route to a 13-5 win at Fetzer Field.
After three convincing wins against lesser opposition to start the season, the Tar Heels were outclassed against Johns Hopkins on Saturday. But UNC believes a humbling loss is just what the team needed to understand how far it still has to go.
“Losses in February are tough, but you can really learn from them if you look at them the right way,” redshirt junior goalkeeper Brian Balkam said. “A team like that comes in and exposes you a little bit in your weak spots.”
While an early-season blowout defeat — the worst since UNC’s 17-9 loss to Duke on May 22, 2010 — was not on any player’s wish list, the Tar Heels have been here before.
“Last year, we had a couple of tough losses early on in the season,” Balkam said. “That really kind of set the pace early on for us, actually — helped us rebound, helped us look inside and figure out what we need to do.”
“We’ll do the exact same thing this year.”
Despite a difficult start to the 2016 season, including a few humbling losses, the Tar Heels rallied to win their first national championship in 25 years.
UNC hopes to use this defeat as fuel for another run this season. Unfazed by the sting of early-season disappointment, the Tar Heels know there’s plenty of lacrosse to be played.
“This is a great lesson for us,” junior Chris Cloutier said. “We’re going to this one on the chin and just power through for next week.”
Senior midfielder Stephen Kelly agreed.
“Look, man, the best teams are peaking in May,” Kelly said. “That’s what we want to do. So we’re going to continue to work and just get better.”
So while UNC got a good look at just how much work needs to be done to return to championship form, the Tar Heels aren’t panicking just yet.
They still have a chance to turn things around.