Sometimes, you don’t even have to be at the game to know the why a team lost. All you have to do is look at the box score.
For the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team, the 12-8 loss against Duke was one of those games. In the second half, the Tar Heels lost nine of 10 faceoffs, which lead to UNC collecting four ground balls to the Blue Devils’ 14, and the Blue Devils outshooting them 26-9 down the stretch as they pulled away for the win.
“When you don’t have the ball, you can’t score,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “The stats of the second half are pretty clear.”
Senior midfielder Stephen “Bones” Kelly struggled in the X for the Tar Heels (5-5, 0-1 ACC), as Blue Devil midfielder Kyle Rowe heated up and won faceoff after faceoff for Duke (8-3, 1-0 ACC). UNC entered the second half with a 7-5 lead, but a 3-1 advantage off the faceoff in the third quarter gave the Blue Devils the two goals they needed to tie the game, before UNC snuck one back just before the horn to make it 8-7 going into the final frame.
The fourth quarter was where it all went really wrong for the Tar Heels. Duke scored two goals in under a minute after dominating possession for the first four minutes of the half. Junior goalie Brain Balkham made some point blank saves, but the Blue Devils’ relentless pressure opened up space in the middle, leading to a 9-8 lead.
“Really good ball movement on their part,” Balkham said. “I guess they sensed a little bit of weakness in the middle of our defense, kept on attacking that.”
Duke kept the heat up the rest of the quarter as Rowe kept winning faceoffs, as UNC barely saw the ball the entire quarter. That gave the Blue Devils plenty of time to work the ball around and find openings in the Tar Heel defense, resulting in three more goals for the final 12-8 scoreline.
“We were sliding when maybe not need be and they got some good looks inside,” senior defenseman Austin Pifani said. “They made some really talented handles and were able to finish.”
Breschi said that UNC kept trying different strategies to throw Rowe off his game and win some faceoffs to get the ball back, but nothing worked.
“Credit goes to their faceoff guy,” Breschi said. “We tried a bunch of different looks to try to change the flow. But at the end of the day, they made the plays.”
Balkham said that you prepare for situations where your team doesn’t have the ball for long periods of time, but noted that sometimes faceoffs can have some variance from game to game.
“We’ve had plenty of games where Bones has just been automatic, and it seems like he’s winning everything,” Balkham said.
That variance, Balkham said, shouldn’t be an excuse for those goals.
“You've got to dig in a little more and every stop matters just a little bit more,” he said. “But that shouldn’t change how you play.”
Breschi knows that losing the faceoff battle this badly, however, is a tough task for any defensive unit.
“You put that much pressure on your defense and your goalie, that’s a lot to ask of them,” he said.
UNC has now lost four of its last five games after starting the season 4-1. With ACC play opening tonight, the margin of error for the Tar Heels is shrinking, with the possibility of not even making the NCAA tournament a year after winning the national title suddenly emerging. The Tar Heels need to break their slump, and fast.
“We’re a good team, we’ve got really good players. We’ve shown that at times this year,” Balkham said. “We’ve just got to get back on board, just got to focus on ourselves, get back to just having fun out here.”
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