The North Carolina men’s lacrosse team couldn’t have asked for a better Saturday.
Hosting No. 5 Duke at the UNC Lacrosse Stadium for the first time, the Tar Heels opened up ACC play with a 10-8 win in a back-and-forth affair thanks to a balanced scoring attack and stellar performance by first-year goalie Caton Johnson in his first career start.
The win was UNC’s (7-3, 1-0 ACC) first against the Blue Devils (8-3, 0-2 ACC) since 2016 and comes one week after the Tar Heels lost 16-9 at No. 3 Maryland.
“We all have to sacrifice, we all have to do a little bit more as the new season begins,” UNC head coach Joe Breschi said. “Whatever happened in the past is done, let's learn from it and get ourselves better. We played with great energy and it felt like a new season.”
UNC didn’t wait to long to open the scoring, as senior attackman Timmy Kelly connected on an unassisted goal just 95 seconds into the game. The goal was Kelly’s 14th of the year, coming after he tied his career high with four tallies in a loss against Maryland last week.
The Tar Heels doubled their advantage just 42 seconds later, as first-year midfielder Zachary Tucci won the ensuing faceoff, setting up an offensive possession for UNC that culminated with another unassisted score, this time from junior midfielder Matt Gavin. A week after losing the faceoff battle against Maryland 22-7, the Tar Heels took six of the 10 draws in the first half.
Duke got on the board via junior attackman Joey Manown, but the Blue Devils struggled otherwise against Johnson.
Having seen the field for just over eight minutes in three games heading into Saturday, Johnson made 10 first-half saves and was crucial in man-down situations. The Tar Heels committed six penalties before halftime but held the Blue Devils to just 1-of-6 on extra-man opportunities, with Johnson making big saves like one against Duke’s Manown from close range midway through the second quarter.
After goals by UNC’s Brian Cameron and Duke graduate midfielder Jake Seau, UNC took a 3-2 lead into the second quarter. By halftime, the Tar Heel lead stretched to two, as Gavin scored for a second time and sophomore Alex Trippi found the net, cutting inside before loading up and firing past Duke goalie Turner Uppgren.
Out of halftime, it took UNC just 23 seconds to score, as Nicky Solomon provided an unassisted goal, making it a 6-3 lead.
But the Blue Devils didn’t wait long to get back in the game, with Reilly Walsh scoring on a man-up opportunity with 11:22 left in the third quarter. After a score by the Blue Devils’ Kevin Quigley, Nakeie Montgomery scored his third goal of the season to tie the score at 6-6.
And it was Montgomery who gave Duke its first lead of the day, a 7-6 advantage with 6:18 remaining in the third quarter.
Despite having a pair of man-up opportunities in the third quarter, the Tar Heels couldn’t get anything going offensively, and Montgomery and the Blue Devils made them pay. Montgomery secured his second three-goal game of the season as he put Duke ahead by a pair of goals with just under three minutes remaining in the third quarter.
But Duke’s run was eventually answered with one by the Tar Heels that gave them a 9-8 lead going into the fourth quarter. Playing in his first collegiate game, first-year midfielder Will Nicklaus scored the first goal of his career, the first of three goals in a 1:29 span for UNC.
UNC’s Cameron scored on an open net after Kelly attracted the attention of Uppgren. With eight seconds remaining in the third quarter, UNC senior attacker Andy Matthews scored from close distance to put UNC back in the lead.
Both defenses tightened up once the final quarter began, but Duke had an opportunity to tie the game when UNC senior defenseman Jack Rowlett was whistled for unnecessary roughness with just over six minutes remaining in the game.
But like it had for most of the afternoon, the UNC defense held strong while playing a man down and so did Johnson, who remained tough in goal.
UNC eventually broke through and scored the only goal of the fourth quarter with 3:50 remaining, as junior midfielder Justin Anderson faked a shot, cut inside and fired past Duke’s Uppgren to put UNC up by two, 10-8.
From there, the UNC defense held strong and shut out the Blue Devils in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
Who stood out?
Johnson was undoubtedly the star of the day for UNC, as he finished with 21 saves, the most by a UNC goalie since Kieran Burke had the same amount in 2015. Johnson said he didn’t find out until yesterday that he would be making his first career start, but he looked unfazed and played a composed game.
“My first clean save in the first quarter was when I was like, 'OK, here we go,’” Johnson said. “That’s when you start seeing the ball.”
For the Blue Devils, Montgomery’s three-goal performance powered Duke’s third-quarter surge, but that good stretch of play didn’t carry over into the fourth quarter.
Eight different Tar Heels scored, including Gavin, who finished with two goals to record the first multi-goal game of his career.
When was it decided?
Anderson’s goal with just under four minutes remaining gave UNC a two-goal cushion to work with, and the Blue Devils never threatened from that point on.
Why does it matter?
A season ago, UNC didn’t earn its first ACC win until the season finale. Now the Tar Heels have one conference win in as many tries. The victory coming against Duke doesn’t hurt, either.
“This is the first time I’ve ever beaten Duke as a junior in my junior class, so it’s just even more special,” Gavin said.
When do they play next?
UNC hits the road for its first ACC road game, a showdown with No. 7 Virginia on Saturday, April 6. The Tar Heels lost 15-12 against the Cavaliers last season.
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