April 26, 2013

UNC Survives Duke Comeback; Virginia up Next in ACC Final

by Henry Gargan | LaxMagazine.com | Live Blog Replay

Duke trailed by nine goals but took a one-goal lead on North Carolina late in the fourth quarter. But when things looked bleak for UNC, Marcus Holman came up clutch.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — At halftime of the ACC men's lacrosse tournament's second semifinal game Friday night, the score was 13-6 with North Carolina leading. If the fans thought that tally looked familiar, it was: 13-6 was the final score of the first semifinal game between Virginia and Maryland.

But where the two games differed in complexion they matched one another in drama.

Virginia surprised Maryland in the early result. But the second game — in which the Tar Heels managed to stave off a comeback of historic proportions from Duke and prevail 18-17 — more than lived up to the excitement of that performance.

Second-seeded North Carolina, the top-ranked team in the country, will battle the conference's low seed, unranked No. 4 Virginia, for the conference championship at 1 p.m. Sunday in Chapel Hill.

"They asked me if I'd ever been a part of something like that game, and I can tell you this," North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. "I've never been a part of a nine-goal lead when the other team's taken the lead and to have our team show that fight, that desire, that resiliency to continue to battle.

The Tar Heels prevailed after squandering a 15-6 lead in a span of just over 15 minutes in the second half. The third-seeded Blue Devils reeled off eight unanswered goals during one stretch and stunned the Kenan Stadium crowd by going in front 17-16 on Bill Conners' score with 6:12 remaining in the game.

But UNC rallied to tie and won the highest-scoring game in ACC tournament history after Tewaaraton Award candidate Marcus Holman scored his fourth goal to put his team ahead by the final margin with 1:28 remaining. UNC goalie Kieran Burke rejected a potential game-tying shot by Duke's David Lawson with six seconds left.

But for much of the game, Holman might not have expected such heroics would be needed.

North Carolina jumped out to an early 10-3 lead and then the 13-6 halftime advantage. The lead stretched to nine goals just 3:29 into the second half. Holman, Jimmy Bitter, Joey Sankey and Chad Tutton led the way, scoring 13 of UNC's 18 goals.

The Tar Heels used their athleticism to break down Duke's defense by curling around the cage, often scoring at tight angles from close range. With 7:17 to play in the half, UNC had already equaled its scoring total from its first March 13 meeting with Duke, which it lost 11-8.

Simply put, UNC looked like a better team. Its one-on-one defense looked better than it had all season, though it helped that Duke had only seen its zone the last time the teams met.

But Duke knew that UNC's appearance of superiority had only been compounded by its own complacency.

"Taking a beating like that, you really have to challenge yourself and really look yourself in the mirror and say, 'What am I gonna do when I get hit in the face like that?'" Duke attackman Josh Offit said. "And I think we all took that personally in the first half and just wanted to make a better effort."

The Blue Devils dominated possession in the critical third quarter by winning seven of nine faceoffs and 14 ground balls to North Carolina's seven. An 8-0 run brought Duke within one at 15-14, and then, less than three minutes later, Duke had its first lead at 17-16.

UNC looked flummoxed and panicky. Its defense had compacted in an almost instinctive response to the onslaught, but that meant Duke was dictating the distance from the cage at which it operated. Naturally, the Blue Devils opted to take high-percentage attempts.

"They were getting on the doorstep," Breschi said. "We didn't play great defense inside, and we weren't forcing a lot of outside opportunities."

Good defense is said to lead to good offense, but in UNC's case, the reverse was true: it seemed to be that its struggling defense created additional pressure for its attack.

"Just being at the other end of the field, you feel a sense of helplessness when you can't get the ball," Holman said. "It's tough when you have a limited amount of possessions like that because you feel like you have to rush to score."

But Holman and Bitter composed themselves in just in time, to first tie the game with five minutes remaining and then take a final lead on Holman's goal.

Virginia, like Duke, made an 8-0 run. But Maryland, unlike UNC, never responded.

While Virginia has dominated its opponents in nearly every statistical category this season, the glaring deficiency has been its shooting percentage. Against Maryland, its 34 percent clip was nearly 10 percentage points above its 25.8 percent average.

Virginia's halftime lead stood at 5-3, which was actually an improvement on the expectations the first quarter's 1-0 conclusion created.

In the second half, Virginia rattled off eight unanswered goals to take a 13-5 lead with 2:53 remaining before Maryland's Owen Blye completed his inconsequential hat trick with 24 seconds to play, bringing the final tally to 13-6.

UNC's Breschi said his team's matchup with Virginia Sunday will likely not equal the scoring output of his team's semifinal performance, though he added that the Cavaliers have the potential to keep up with UNC on offense.

"I think Virginia has lost a lot of tight games," Breschi said. "They're pretty explosive and they obviously played a great game today and are a very talented group. But for us it's always been about us. About us focusing us on the details and executing the gameplan. If we do that...we'll be OK."

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