The No. 19 North Carolina men's lacrosse team (6-5, 1-1 ACC) celebrated head coach Joe Breschi’s birthday on Sunday night by delivering him his 100th victory at UNC coach with a 15-12 win over No. 12 Virginia (7-5, 0-3 ACC).
Just over two minutes into the game, the Cavaliers’ Joe French put one past redshirt junior goalkeeper Brian Balkam to give UVa. the early lead. William McBride responded with two goals, and Michael Tagliaferri tacked on another to give North Carolina the 3-2 lead at the end of the first period.
The next 15 minutes saw the Tar Heels look more like the defending national champions than the team that had limped into the game with a 5-5 record. Four Tar Heels combined for six unanswered goals, while the defense held UVa. to just five shots on frame, all of which were saved by Balkam.
Coming out of the break, the Tar Heels were unable to find the rhythm they had established in the second period. While the two teams each got off 13 shots in the quarter, the Tar Heels only placed five of them on goal and were outscored 6-2 as their lead shrank to 11-8.
Heading into the final quarter, the Tar Heels looked to avoid a collapse like last week that saw them blow a five-goal lead against Duke.
First-year William Perry found the upper left corner of the net with a mid-range shot, which was followed six seconds later by a goal from senior faceoff specialist Stephen Kelly to build the Tar Heel lead back to five to start the period.
The Tar Heels showed they are capable of closing high caliber games, and they continued their undefeated streak away from home. The Cavaliers netted two desperation goals in the final thirty seconds, but the Tar Heels held firm in a 15-12 win.
Who stood out?
In a very balanced team performance, the significance of Kelly’s play to the Tar Heel effort stood out as the spark. On top of his goal, his historic domination of the face off X was the differentiating factor throughout the game. He won 23 of the 30 face offs against three different Cavaliers, tying the single-game UNC record. He also moved into sole possession of second on the all time list of face-off wins at UNC, while his 15 ground balls also tied the single-game school record. Kelly credited the help of his wings in helping control the game from the whistle.
The man-up unit for the Tar Heels was clicking on all cylinders as well, converting all four of their extra man opportunities with two goals from first-year Tanner Cook, one from sophomore Timmy Kelly and the other from Perry to start the fourth quarter.
When was it decided?
The Tar Heel defense held off the Cavaliers for 14:55, spanning from Virginia's last goal of the third quarter until A.J. Fish cut the UNC lead back to four with 6:25 left in the game.
Before the Cavaliers could build on that momentum, senior Luke Goldstock cut them down with a low-to-high shot for his 21st goal of the season. The goal brought the lead back to five, which was more than enough for the Tar Heels to protect until the final buzzer.
Why does it matter?
Breschi proved last year that he knows how to turn a team around in the face of adversity. This season, the Tar Heels again find themselves with their backs against the wall.
But the team doesn’t plan on going down without a fight, as they showed Sunday night. The win over the Cavaliers moves UNC up to third place in the ACC, and the top-four teams making the ACC tournament at the end of the regular season. Every win counts for the Tar Heels in their quest to make it back to the NCAA tournament, and a convincing road win against a ranked ACC opponent is exactly what the team needed after losing two straight.
Besides getting his team back above .500, the win carried personal significance for Breschi. It was his 100th career victory as the UNC coach, and it came on his birthday. His team made sure there was cause to celebrate, heading back to Chapel Hill with their first conference win of the season.
Where do they play next?
The Tar Heels take on the No. 2 Syracuse at 7p.m. on Saturday in Chapel Hill. It will be their last ever regular season game at Fetzer Field.
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