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Preview: No. 1 UNC men's lacrosse faces stacked field in Final Four

UNC junior attackman Jacob Kelly (9) sprints to the goal during the Tar Heels' 15-12 victory against Duke on Sunday, May 2. With the victory, UNC and Duke share the 2021 ACC regular season title.
Buy Photos UNC junior attackman Jacob Kelly (9) sprints to the goal during the Tar Heels' 15-12 victory against Duke on Sunday, May 2. With the victory, UNC and Duke share the 2021 ACC regular season title.

For the first time since 2019, a Division I NCAA men’s lacrosse championship will be won on Monday. After a year full of COVID-19-related uncertainties, the only question left is who will be hoisting the trophy. 

With the No. 1 North Carolina men’s lacrosse team as one of four teams left standing, the Tar Heels have some familiar foes standing in their way. 

As the Tournament broke in the direction of chalk — No. 1 UNC, No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Maryland and No. 4 Virginia compose the Championship Weekend field — there will be a dangerous slate of teams playing in Hartford, Connecticut, starting with the Tar Heels and Cavaliers on Saturday.

Here’s a look at the Final Four field, and North Carolina’s keys to coming out on top and hoisting its sixth national championship trophy.

Standing in the way

UNC has already played the best. The ACC made sure of that. In the regular season, North Carolina faced six of the teams that advanced to the 16-team NCAA tournament field — including two matchups apiece with fellow semifinal qualifiers Virginia and Duke. 

The Cavaliers and the Blue Devils are the only teams to have defeated UNC this season, having split both series during the regular season. 

Against Georgetown in the quarterfinals last Saturday, the Cavaliers showed why they entered the Tournament so highly-touted: blowing out the No. 5 Hoyas, 14-3. Averaging 22.69 points-per-game, Georgetown carried one of the best offenses in the country before being held to a season-low against Virginia.

If UVA is able to maintain its defensive momentum against the Tar Heels — who were held to 12 goals in the quarterfinal, a low mark for the highest-scoring team in the country — UNC could run into trouble, especially when considering Virginia is a team that can light up the scoreboard itself, notching 18 goals in its last matchup with UNC. 

Facing the No. 3 team in the nation according to RPI, advancing to Monday is anything but assured for the Tar Heels. 

But if they do, it won’t get any easier.

Both Duke and Maryland are traditional lacrosse powers, and this season has maintained that trend. 

The Blue Devils also share the ACC title with their crosstown rivals and are just as battle-tested as North Carolina heading into Hartford. And while they may not be the heavy favorites to win it all, as Duke was before the season, a national championship is still the expectation in Durham.

The last time UNC won a national title, the 2016 crown, it was over Maryland — and with five national championship game appearances in the last 10 seasons, the Terrapins have a deeper track record than anyone at making deep runs.

Keys to success

Score, score, score. It’s what the Tar Heels do best — better than anyone in the country — and if they hope to leave Hartford on a high note, they’ll have to do it with consistency. 

Against Rutgers in the quarterfinal, UNC struggled to get on the scoreboard — matching its lowest regulation total of the season with 11 goals — but ultimately came out on top due to some timely plays. In order to win a title, low-scoring appearances likely won’t get the job done, and maintaining offensive success starts with senior attackman Chris Gray. 

Gray is second in the nation in points-per-game and is one of the finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, given annually to the top collegiate lacrosse player. Last Saturday, he was held goalless — a trend that can’t continue if UNC wants to play for and win the championship on Monday. 

But while Gray does have to get balls into the back of the cage, his supporting cast has to be excellent, too. If there was an offensive bright spot on Saturday, it was the emergence of sophomore Lance Tillman. The underclassman notched four goals against the Scarlet Knights and provided a change of pace for a veteran offense — relying on quickness to work his way to the front of the cage. 

Even after his success on Saturday, Tillman only has nine goals this season. His further emergence would only complement a potent North Carolina offensive attack, which includes six players with 20 or more goals on the season. 

While the quarterfinal win over Rutgers may not have been the usual, dominant performance UNC has shown this season, the rest of the way will not be easy either. 

If the Tar Heels continue the every-player effort they have shown all year, the team is more than capable of coming away with two more victories.  

@zachycrain 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com




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