After falling to No. 3 Maryland last weekend, the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team dropped to 6-3 for the year. The loss was one of the lowest points of the season for the Tar Heels, and head coach Joe Breschi knew something had to change.
On Monday, Breschi held a team meeting and additionally allowed his players to conduct a players-only meeting to figure out what adjustments needed to be made heading into ACC play.
“We just talked about how we all have to sacrifice; we all have to do a little bit more,” Breschi said. “…Whatever happened in the past is done. Let’s learn from it and get ourselves better.”
One of the biggest sacrifices made was the adjustment in goal for the Tar Heels as they prepared to take on No. 5 Duke.
All season long, junior Jack Pezzulla and senior Alex Bassil had essentially split time as goalkeeper for North Carolina (7-3, 1-0 ACC), while first-year Caton Johnson had only seen a little over eight minutes of action in his first nine games.
Yet it was Johnson who got the first start of his collegiate career against one of the premier men’s lacrosse programs in the country. And it was his 21 saves, the most by a UNC player in a single game since 2015, that led a solid defensive effort by the Tar Heels, and gave the team a 10-8 win over the Blue Devils on Saturday.
UNC won the opening faceoff and got off to a quick lead with a pair of goals by senior Timmy Kelly and junior Matt Gavin in the first three minutes of the game.
Duke responded soon after with a goal of its own. Just 15 seconds later, though, Johnson picked up his first save of the afternoon and settled in for what would be one of the greatest performances by a North Carolina goalkeeper in years.
“My first clean save in the first quarter was when I was like, 'Alright, here we go,'” Johnson said. “Because that’s when you start seeing the ball.”
Johnson finished the first half with 10 saves and the Tar Heels took a 5-3 lead into the half.
“We were making a lot of defensive stops, knocking down passes and getting in the way of shots,” Gavin said.
The North Carolina momentum took a turn in the third period, however. Over the course of a nine-minute span, Duke proceeded to score five unanswered goals, and the Blue Devils took an 8-6 lead late in the third quarter.
“We had a second quarter lapse last week that cost us, 7-1. In the third quarter, we did stub our toe a little bit,” Breschi said. “(Duke) took advantage of opportunities.”
However, North Carolina dug deep and rallied to score three goals in the final 90 seconds of the third period, an effort that Breschi attributed to the team translating its performance on the practice field to in-game situations.
“We played like we practiced," Breschi said. "We’ve been practicing hard, but we haven’t been playing hard in games for 60 minutes. They went up 8-6, and we were relentless. We kept coming and coming and didn’t let that affect us like it has in other games.”
As soon as the final horn blared and North Carolina secured the upset, Johnson’s teammates sprinted onto the field to mob their star of the afternoon. After the dog pile finally began to thin out, Johnson commented on the significance of his outstanding performance.
“It means I’ve got to keep working so I can continue to play well," Johnson said. "Because I could lose it just as easy as I got it."
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