May 12, 2012

Denver Outlasts North Carolina in High-Scoring Classic

by Matt Forman | | Twitter | Live Blog Replay

Denver sophomore Jeremy Noble set a program-record for points in a game with 10 on three goals in seven assists as the Pioneers threw an array of offensive looks at North Carolina on Saturday night.
© Gray Quetti

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Eric Law scooped up John Zurlo's field-length pass and shook off North Carolina goalie Steven Rastivo, then turned and fired a shot to the back of the wide-open cage as time expired. Law threw his arms up in the air and sent the Denver sideline into celebration.

When the buzzer sounded the scoreboard showed the final as 16-14, but as Denver coach Bill Tierney said, "Trust me. That was a one-goal game." It was a cathartic moment for the Pioneers, who entered Saturday night with a 1-5 record in one-goal games and didn't have the bounces go their way most of the year.

"I gave him some crap over that [last-second goal]," Tierney said. "He told me he thought the game was over. It wasn't about that. When you get to be my age, when you get this much experience, what happens is you end up hurting for the kids. You really do, you hurt for them. You're happy for them when things go well, but when things aren't going well, you hurt for them and you just keep telling them to keep plugging, keep plugging, keep plugging.

"Even if in your own mind you're saying, 'Sheesh, when are we going to get a break here?' Keep plugging. Finally it's going to turn and finally it works. To work on a big stage like it did tonight makes it really special."

Law's empty-net goal will be a lasting image of the Pioneers' 16-14 upset victory in their NCAA Tournament first-round game against eighth-seeded North Carolina, before a crowd of 1,344. What happened before Law's goal, well, lacrosse fans across the country are still trying to make sense of.

Denver's high-octane offense managed 42 shots, as Jeremy Noble scored a single-game program-best 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists), Mark Matthews tacked on five goals of the highlight-reel variety and Wes Berg added a hat trick. Faceoff specialist Chase Carraro won 22-of-30 draws at the X and scooped a Fetzer Field record 17 ground balls, effectively giving the Pioneers 15 more possessions than the Tar Heels. And the Pioneers outlasted Carolina, securing a trip to the NCAA quarterfinals, where they'll face ECAC foe and top-seeded Loyola for the third time this year.

"When offensive coordinator Matt Brown ran off the list of offenses we were going to play tonight against these guys, I got tired listening," Tierney joked. "I think there were 17. By mixing it up, we felt like we could hopefully keep their defenders kind of on their heels a little bit."

Safe to say they did. Denver won a crazy, up-and-down, game-of-runs. It was a "track meet," as Carolina coach Joe Breschi described it. Denver jumped out to an early 6-2 lead on a 5-0 first-quarter rally. Carolina went into halftime ahead 10-8 after scoring eight of the next 10 goals. Then Denver went on a 7-2 run to make it 15-13 midway through the final period.

Neither team's defense could contain the opposing offense — save for Denver slowing Carolina for a 20-minute stretch at the end of the third quarter and early fourth.

"We tried a little bit of everything," Breschi said. "We played zone, we played man, we locked off. At times, we [slid] with the near man and at times we were coming adjacently."

Tierney added, "We just couldn't stop them. We just couldn't."

It felt like a race to 15 goals, or a game that would come down to the last possession. It was both.

Ahead 15-13 with 6:30 remaining, the Pioneers tried to chew the final minutes off the clock. Carolina had a few good looks at the cage, including one goal that was waved off after Jimmy Bitter dove in the crease, but the Tar Heels still trailed by a pair with less than two minutes remaining when Tierney took a timeout, looking to put the game on ice.

With the automatic stall warning on, North Carolina forced a turnover behind the cage on an errant pass, and they settled the ball in Denver's end with 1:30 to go. Duncan Hutchins dropped his shoulder, drove along goal line extended and finished above goalie Ryan LaPlante's shoulder to make it 15-14.

"When offensive coordinator Matt Brown ran off the list of offenses we were going to play tonight against these guys, I got tired listening... I think there were 17."

-- Denver head coach Bill Tierney

Carraro won the ensuing faceoff, but Mark Staines intercepted a pass near the restraining box on Denver's clearing attempt. He ran the length of the field and fired on the run from about 12 yards, clanking a bounce shot off the left post and sending a rebound high into the Carolina night.

The Heels corralled the loose ball, and Breschi took timeout with 20 seconds left.

"We set a play for Marcus to come around looking for step-downs," Breschi said of Marcus Holman, who scored a game-high six goals. "It was basically short-stick set the pick for Marcus. And then we had step-downs, motion off the ball, criss-crossing on the crease, looking for Jimmy Bitter or Duncan Hutchins on the step-down."

Holman couldn't make the connecting pass. The ball got knocked down on a feed out front and fell to the turf. Zurlo picked up the ground ball and hurled a no-look pass down the other end, not necessarily intended for anyone. But Law used his body to block Rastivo, who had come out of net to make a play on the ball. Law grabbed it and did the rest.

The biggest difference Saturday night: Carraro controlled the faceoff dot — first against R.G. Keenan, one of the top specialists in the country, and then against Frankie Kelly and Mark Staines.

"Carraro was quick on the whistle. He was very, very good," Breschi said. " He's got great hands. We threw three different guys at him, trying to change the momentum, the flow, trying to get some possession and weren't able to do it."

It became too much for the Pioneers to overcome, and it gave Denver its second victory over an elite ACC team in the last few weeks.

"Even last year going to the final four [and winning these games], it opened everyone's eyes to the western teams," Matthews said. "[This year] we've lost a bunch of one-goal games in overtime and stuff. But other than that we keep going and keep opening eyes."

And making moments you never forget, like Law's last-second goal.

"These are events that you just don't get tired of," Tierney said.

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