April 28, 2013

North Carolina Forges Identity: Just Plain Good

by Henry Gargan | LaxMagazine.com | Live Blog Replay

North Carolina head coach Joe Breschi and the Tar Heels celebrate winning the ACC title with a 16-13 win over Virginia on Sunday. It was UNC's first title since 1996. Virginia, meanwhile, dropped below .500 and is ineligible for the NCAA tournament.
© Peyton Williams

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Before North Carolina topped Virginia 16-13 on Sunday for the ACC tournament championship, it had been 17 years since the program won a conference title and five since coach Joe Breschi took over leading the Tar Heels.

Because of that drought and mixed results since the coaching change, UNC's players feel like the rest of the nation doesn't really know who they are or what they stand for. But the Tar Heels like it that way.

"We don't have any pressure on us," said North Carolina senior Marcus Holman, named ACC tournament MVP. "I think people still don't believe in us. Toward the end of the season, we're looking forward to proving some people wrong."

UNC's secret identity, as it has revealed in the second half of the season, is simply that it is a very, very good team.

Seven players scored for the Tar Heels on Sunday, led by Davey Emala's four goals and Chad Tutton's hat trick. Goalkeeper Kieran Burke made 17 saves and 12 in the second half. UNC's R.G. Keenan dominated faceoffs 18-14 and scored two goals.

And the defense, anchored by Burke, added a new wrinkle to the identity of a team most readily identified by its firepower on the attack.

"They've developed an attitude down there," Holman said. "They're tired of people talking about our offense all the time and they're forming their own identity. They're tough, hard-nosed guys."

Still, the defense seemed to struggle somewhat. In the second half, it didn't have an answer for All-ACC attackman Matt White, who scored the majority — seven — of his team's goals. But the Tar Heels defense did manage to force a number of outside shots from the Cavaliers, making life easier for Burke in the cage.

Virginia took a 5-4 lead in the first quarter, but UNC made an impressive 6-2 run in the second to take a 10-7 lead into halftime.

"The second quarter, I fought the faceoff piece became problematic," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "I felt like we never had the ball in the second quarter, and that was the big thing. We made a couple of mistakes in the clearing game and gave them back the ball. It felt like we could get good opportunities when we had the ball, but that wasn't happening."

But having watched both Virginia's second-half run against Maryland and UNC's historic second-half lapse against Duke in Friday's semifinal round, anything seemed possible after halftime.

The Tar Heels, though, remained composed in the second half and hung on to match the Cavaliers with six goals apiece in the final two quarters.

Virginia's lone outlier on the stat sheet — poor shooting percentage — came back to haunt the Cavaliers after giving them a reprieve on Friday against Maryland. Virginia outshot UNC 46-42, but Starsia said missed opportunities on extra-man changes and failure to execute from close range made the difference.

"I think Carolina has evolved defensively over the course of the season," he said. "They've got some nice athletes there, the kid in the cage has solidified that spot for them a little bit. We had opportunities to close it down in the second half, shots that ordinarily we would convert."

As North Carolina's defense becomes part of the program's new identity under Breschi, Starsia said he didn't want to lose sight of the 2013 team's value to his own Virginia program, though he added that its fate — a 7-8 record and a missing NCAA Tournament berth — might be used as an example of a team that kept fighting through disappointing results.

"I told them in the locker room that I hope future teams distinguish themselves the way this team did," he said. "That they play with the same kind of dignity this team did and the other things will take care of themselves."

As for UNC, Holman said his program is focused on letting go of the ghosts of teams past and doing what this particular group of players does best — which seems to be nearly everything. But with his five assists against Virginia, with which Holman broke a UNC record for career points set in 1973, he and his team couldn't have helped but feel some pride in restoring honor, and an identity, to the Tar Heel lacrosse program.

"We've had five years of working hard and recruiting and trying to bring in the best people," Breschi said. "I know we've had some bumps in the road for the five years we've been here, but we continue to do it our way. We're passionate about that, and we're excited for our university, our athletic department and certainly for our program to bring back the championship."

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