As the buzzer sealed UNC men’s lacrosse’s first ACC win of the season, the team stormed Dorrance Field, clustering in a sweaty mass of chest bumps, high fives and head butts.
For some, the game’s end was surreal because of how tight the score was. For others, it was the last home game in blue and white.
The Tar Heels had a chip on their shoulders against the Orange, coming off wide-margin losses against ACC giants Duke and Virginia.
Seeking to change the trend of low scoring against the Orange, head coach Joe Breschi moved senior attackmen Nicky Solomon and Jacob Kelly to middie positions, matching them up with shorties instead of poles.
“Our goal was to try to get our best players on the field at the same time and cause a little havoc that way," Breschi said.
And havoc they caused.
The Tar Heels played with the offensive edge the entire game, leading 12-9 halfway into the fourth period. That was until first-year defenseman Tyler Schwarz got a two minute non-releasable cross check penalty.
With a man down, UNC’s offensive momentum sputtered to a halt. In its two-minute man-up opportunity, Syracuse fired in two goals, followed by a couple more in the dwindling minutes of regulation to give the Orange its first lead since the beginning of the first, 13-12.
Down by one point with a minute and change left, Kelly dodged from X, drew the Orange help defender and fed the ball to open junior attackman Lance Tillman.
“My guy slid to him so I had time and room,” Tillman said. “I was a little patient and then came around topside and shot.”
And scored to tie the game, 13-13.
Then came the following face-off, an element that the team had struggled to get consistent the entire game with four different players switching in to earn possession.
After winning just one of his eight face-offs during the game, senior face-off midfielder Zac Tucci took the field.
Upon the whistle, Tucci won the clamp, but was held down by the Orange’s face-off middie, preventing a quick exit and knocking the ball out for a 50/50 ground ball. Scooped up by Schwarz, UNC got the possession it so desperately needed under the pressure of the clock.
In almost textbook fashion, graduate attackman Chris Gray set a screen for Kelly and set up a big/little matchup. Syracuse hedged the ball screen hard and sprung Gray free on the weak side.
Catching the ball behind the cage, Gray sprinted up the right side, jumped away from contact to free his hands, and nailed the shot — and the coffin to Syracuse’s now four-game losing streak.
Kelly and Solomon’s risks paid off. They finished their senior night with a combined three goals and five assists.
For Gray, scoring the final goal with 15 seconds on the clock during his last home game as a Tar Heel was all-the-more emotional.
“It's bittersweet,” he said. “I'm so fortunate to have ended up in such a special place with such a great group so I really couldn’t have asked for a better last game.”
Gray’s five goals during the matchup put him just 10 points away from breaking the all-time NCAA DI record of 400. Also coming into the matchup, Gray and Syracuse’s Tucker Dordevic were tied for No. 3 in the nation for goals scored this season at 39, or 3.55 per game.
By the end of Saturday's game, Gray outscored Dordevic by two.
Next on UNC’s docket come No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 13 Duke, both set on enemy turf. Emerging from a consecutive losses, North Carolina’s changes against the Orange reignited the team going into two more must-win games ahead of the NCAA tournament.
“We're gaining confidence,” Breschi said. “The adjustments in personnel we made throughout the game and before the game were good steps in the right direction.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.