Three hundred and thirty-four days.
That’s how long the No. 4 North Carolina men's lacrosse team had been on pause since its last game. But on Sunday, senior attackman Chris Gray and the UNC offense showed little evidence of having any rust from that time off.
UNC scored 24 goals, including 14 before halftime, beating No. 5 Denver 24-13. The onslaught of goals was led by an impressive performance from Gray, who finished the day with six goals and an assist after playing only three quarters, including a hat trick before the first quarter ended.
“You can’t guard him honestly, he’s a feeder, he’s a dodger, he can do it all,” junior attackman Nicky Solomon said. “It’s kind of hard to scout him because he’s so diverse in how he plays that it’s pretty hard to guard him one-on-one.”
Denver opened up the game fast, scoring the first goal just 39 seconds in on first-year goalkeeper Collin Krieg.
Just after that, though, UNC started scoring in quick bursts, with five goals in about two and a half minutes from four different players — including two from Solomon and one from Gray in the span of 45 seconds. The rest of the first quarter included four more goals from UNC, with Gray scoring back-to-back goals to help the team finish the quarter up 9-2.
“This is obviously our first game, so we wanted to come out and be as sharp as possible,” Gray said. “Like every team, the first game comes with a little bit of rust, but I think we were able to settle in pretty quickly.”
Gray finished the first half by adding another goal and an assist to his stats, and UNC took a 14-3 lead into the half.
The lead UNC brought into the second half grew larger as the Tar Heels' attack and midfield pressured Denver all the way up to the midfield line, causing turnovers that led to goals. One such goal came when a stick check by Gray on a defender led to the ball rolling in off the defender’s stick, bringing the UNC lead up to 13 goals. The rest of the team added on to this, and by the end of the third quarter, the score was 21-6 — with nine different UNC players having scored over the course of the game.
“Through three quarters, 21-6, obviously offensively it’ll continue if we play unselfish and share the ball,” head coach Joe Breschi said.
In the final quarter, UNC took out its first-team defense and made a switch in the crease, taking out Krieg for junior Caton Johnson. The score indicated this, as the defensive pressure on the Denver offense wasn’t the same as it was in the first three quarters of the game. As a result, Denver scored seven goals in the final quarter, and Johnson only recorded two saves out of the nine shots he saw.
Although Denver's late comeback attempt fell short, the postgame celebration for North Carolina looked different than it normally would in a pre-pandemic world. Still, the win's impact on the team wasn't lost on Gray. After the game, he commented on what it meant to be able to play again after that 334-day break.
“Really for me, it was just another opportunity to play the game I love with the guys on the team,” Gray said. “It was just a great team win today, and we were glad to get out there.”