UNC led for most of the game as the Tar Heels jumped out to 2-0 and 4-1 leads as they passed around Duke’s pressing defense.
“We were very prepared for that,” Cloutier said, "and we knew that we had to keep our composure. If they’re pressing out, we gotta take the advantages.”
Even after Duke tied the game before halftime, the Tar Heels’ offense managed to take advantage of holes in the Blue Devils’ defense. Timmy Kelly found himself wide open in front of the goal, giving UNC an 8-7 lead for his third goal of the day. Moments later, Cloutier finished a fantastic one-handed, overhead shot to extend the lead to 9-7 with just 22 seconds left in the third.
But Duke continued to push back, finding chances to get UNC out of the zone defense that head coach Joe Breschi switched the Tar Heels into mid-season.
The Tar Heels’ zone managed to contain some of Duke’s high-flying attack. But the Blue Devils, who entered Friday boasting the country’s third-highest scoring offense, found their best chances on the run.
“We only gave up five zone goals,” Breschi said. “The (other) six were in riding situations or transition, unsettled loose ball situations.”
Those loose ball situations ultimately proved costly. In the second quarter, Duke scored three goals in a span of 2:36 to overcome the Tar Heels’ early 4-1 lead. In the third quarter, the Blue Devils scored as time expired, which trimmed UNC’s lead to 9-8 entering the final quarter.
In the fourth, Duke took its first lead of the game after a pair of goals in the quarter’s first 3:30. Minutes later, Justin Guterding scored his fourth goal of the game to give the Blue Devils more insurance.
On the offensive end was where the Tar Heels ultimately fell short. An 11-minute scoring drought was finally ended when Andy Matthews forced a turnover in the Tar Heels' offensive zone and put away an easy transition chance. But Matthews’ goal was the only shot that went in for UNC in the fourth. The Tar Heels ended the quarter shooting 1-12.
“In the fourth quarter, it came down to finishing our shots and hitting our shots,” Cloutier said. “We were still getting the shots we wanted, we just gotta hit them.”
Breschi was disappointed to lose, but he expressed optimism for the team moving forward into ACC play.
“We know we can play with anybody in the country,” he said. “It’s easy to say that, but our guys are right there, and I think if we can get ourselves a little more healthy in the coming week, that’ll be helpful.”
One bright spot in particular for Breschi’s team was the play of junior goalie Alex Bassil. Bassil entered the season as UNC’s fourth-string goalie, but injuries and inconsistent play above him pushed the Durham native into the starting role on Friday.
Bassil kept UNC in the game, saving nine of the 20 shots he faced — including one late in the fourth to give the Tar Heels one last chance on offense.
“He stood tall, strong,” Breschi said. “They have a really potent offense. I thought the whole defense helped him, but he made some really nice saves.”
Even with the bright spots in Friday afternoon's close loss to a top-10 rival, it's hard for North Carolina to rationalize losing its fifth straight game. After all, this is a program that won a national championship two years ago and the ACC Tournament title last season. Moral victories, as junior attackman Kelly conveyed, simply aren’t good enough.
“It really sucks,” Kelly said. “It’s one of the worst things. It sucks losing to your archrival like that. We had them where we wanted them, we just didn’t finish.”
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