It was desperation time for UNC.
Down two points with 30 seconds remaining, UNC needed a goal, and fast. Junior midfielder Tanner Cook dodged to the cage and seemed to sneak a shot past Denver’s red-hot goalie Alex Ready to bring the Tar Heels within one. Amidst the celebrations, however, a whistle blew, and an official's arms waved.
Cook stepped in the crease. No goal.
The would-be goal was a microcosm of the whole game for the No. 20 North Carolina men’s lacrosse team that fell to No. 8 Denver, 12-10, at the new UNC Lacrosse & Soccer Stadium Saturday morning. The Tar Heels gave themselves a chance, but missed it due to a costly error.
“We’re winning the small victories, but we’re not making the plays when we need them,” head coach Joe Breschi said. “We’ve got to make plays when they count at the end.”
The Tar Heels (3-2) did win some of the statistical battles. First-year Zachary Tucci dominated the face-off X, winning 15 of his 22 attempts. North Carolina also won the ground ball battle, scooping up four more than the Pioneers (4-1), and put more shots on frame.
But whether it was a turnover here (UNC committed eight in the fourth quarter alone) or a silly penalty there, North Carolina couldn’t stay out of its own way long enough to pull off the upset.
“We were in that game the whole time, I think we killed ourselves at the end,” junior midfielder William Perry said. “I believe we should have won that game, and we didn’t due to mental errors that are easily fixable. It all comes down to us.”
North Carolina was in the game. It even had a two-goal lead heading into the halftime intermission. But a tale of two netminders told the story in the second half, as Ready stood on his head, and UNC’s goalie Jack Pezzulla struggled.
First-year Nicky Solomon scored twice on Ready, but said Ready played a style he hadn’t faced before.
“I’ve never seen a goalie come out that far, and it really shocked us a little,” Solomon said.
Ready finished the game with more saves than goals allowed, an impressive feat against any team, let alone on the road facing a top-20 opponent in its brand new stadium.
Pezzulla did not have the same success. After making three saves on seven shots on goal in the first 30 minutes, he would go on to make just two in the following 19 minutes. After surrendering 11 goals and saving only five shots, Breschi decided to make the switch to senior Alex Bassil with just under 11 minutes to go.
“We had to find a spark somewhere,” Breschi said. “They were getting opportunities from the outside and putting them in, and we were looking for something to spark us and our transition game.”
In his nearly 11 minutes of game time, Bassil played well. He made two saves, and his only goal allowed came off an intercepted pass as he was trying to clear the ball.
Despite the second straight loss for the Tar Heels, there were encouraging signs for the team's future. As mentioned, Tucci controlled the faceoffs, and Solomon flashed his talent with a highlight reel worthy finish, dunking it past Ready after toying with his defender from behind the goal.
The strong play from the youth balanced well with that of veteran leaders like Perry (four goals) and captain Justin Anderson (two goals and an assist). Solomon said the leadership the older players provide helps younger players like him feel comfortable.
“They don’t care how old you are, they treat us all the same," Solomon said. "There’s a really good family atmosphere on the field and in the locker room, and we all love each other."
The balance of youth and veterans showed up in the box score as five different players scored.
All told, the result was a frustrating one for the Tar Heels. It was an opportunity to secure a big-time victory and christen the new stadium in a positive way.
But for now, the little victories will have to do.
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