Little things can lead to big differences.
That was the story of what went wrong in the No. 3 North Carolina men’s lacrosse team’s 18-16 loss against No. 6 Virginia on Saturday.
The game pitted the Tar Heels, who were coming off an overtime loss to top-ranked Duke, against a challenging Cavaliers squad, and the game lived up to its billing. The action began immediately from the opening whistle, with a flurry of seven combined goals before either team was able to settle in defensively. The Tar Heels, despite the chaotic early minutes, played with poise and confidence.
“We just think about all the work we put in during preseason and in the fall,” senior William Perry said. “Games are like that, especially against Virginia. They come in runs and that’s how it is and when they get a run, we get a run — it's just about keeping a steady hand.”
The first quarter continued with the offenses having their way and the defenses being able to do very little. Though it wasn’t immediately noticeable, the first quarter showed a worrying trend for the Tar Heels: they were losing the faceoff battle, 9-4. A solid defense and excellent attack meant that the difference wasn’t very noticeable.
The second quarter was much more of a defensive slog than the first, with the Tar Heels' two goals being the only scores in the 15 minutes. The Tar Heels also crucially won the faceoff battle 2-1 in the quarter and had more shots on goal. The teams went into the half with the score tied at 7-7 and momentum on the Tar Heels' side, as their defense appeared to have found its footing.
“I felt like we settled in defensively," head coach Joe Breschi said. "Zero goals (conceded in the second quarter), (first-year goalkeeper) Collin Krieg had four saves, we were playing very sound defense."
The third quarter was a back-and-forth affair, with four lead changes, and neither team able to gain a significant advantage.
Then came the turning point.
With the Cavaliers down 10-9 with 3:45 left in the third, Virginia’s Dox Aitken scored a goal to tie up the game, followed by three more quick goals by the Cavaliers that put them in a 13-10 lead, the largest by either team up till that point. Virginia’s Petey LaSalla was also, crucially, able to win four straight faceoffs after each goal to ensure Virginia kept its momentum as the tired Tar Heel defense began to show cracks.
“The real key is having the ball as much as we did and that starts with Petey LaSalla,” Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany said. “He continues time and time again to prove that not only is he an elite possession faceoff man, but also one of the most dangerous offensive threats.”
As the rain began to fall on Dorrance Field, the Tar Heels fought hard to try to even the score, but LaSalla continued his dominance in faceoffs, winning 11 of the 12 in the quarter, ensuring that the Tar Heels never regained their momentum.
As time expired, it became clear that what had seemed like a minor detail, losing the faceoff battle, had continued to grow until the once-strong Tar Heel defense began to lose its composure and give up goals. From there, the offense was unable to mount a comeback, and North Carolina dropped its second game in as many tries — the Tar Heels' only two losses of the season.