May 11, 2013

Multi-Threat Tar Heels Dismantle Lehigh Defense

by Henry Gargan | | Live Blog Replay

Tewaaraton Award finalist Marcus Holman was one of 13 Tar Heels to notch a point in North Carolina's 16-7 win over Lehigh in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
© Peyton Williams

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Although Marcus Holman, Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey have drawn the most attention from defenses over the course of the season, Holman has said throughout that the North Carolina offense is predicated upon having six scoring threats on the field at any given time.

Against Lehigh in its first-round NCAA Division I men's game Saturday, fifth-seeded UNC did that premise five better. A total of 11 Tar Heels scored goals in North Carolina's 16-7 win against Lehigh, and 13 players scored at least one point.

Chad Tutton and Jimmy Bitter both recorded hat tricks, but defensive players like Patrick Kelly and Ryan Creighton got in on the action along with R.G. Keenan, who scored on a one-man fast-break from the faceoff X.

Lehigh entered the game boasting the nation's second-best goals-against average of 7.44 per game, but once the Tar Heels got rolling, the Mountain Hawk defense looked average at best.

"To beat our defense, that's what you have to do," Lehigh coach Kevin Cassese said. "You have to share the ball and find open men, and they did that really well. The other thing they did was capitalize... in unsettled situations. That's where they thrive. When you see a couple of defensive players come up with assists and goals, that explains some of it, but they were also sharing the ball really well."

In the first quarter, though, Lehigh seemed to be having some success imposing its will on the Tar Heels. Compensating for its athletic disadvantage when matched up against the speedy UNC players, the Mountain Hawks did what they could to turn the game into a slow grind, playing physical defense and methodical offense.

"They have athletes in number," Cassese said. "We just have athletes with heart and grinders. So for us, the methodical approach is what we've been doing all year. It certainly worked for us in the first quarter, and I thought we were in a decent spot going into halftime."

The Mountain Hawks held UNC to one goal on 13 shots in the first quarter, and Lehigh enjoyed a 2-1 advantage after 15 minutes of play on goals from David DiMaria and Patrick Corbett. But that was the last lead Lehigh held.

Keenan's performance on faceoffs and UNC's tenacious ground ball play slowly caught up to Lehigh once North Carolina began making shots. The Tar Heels rattled off six goals in the second quarter, including a string of five unanswered, to take a 7-4 lead into halftime.

"We continued to keep to the game plan, and we took advantage of some transition opportunities," UNC coach Joe Breschi said. "I know a big focus for them was to try to play a six-on-six game, but I thought we did a nice job of taking advantage of those opportunities in the second quarter."

Lehigh scored a quick extra-man goal to open the second half, but UNC got back on track with goals from Steve Pontrello, Tutton and Bitter in the third quarter.

And in the final period, North Carolina made the nation's second-best defense look ragged and worn out. UNC piled on another six goals in the fourth quarter to cushion its lead.

"They had the ball all day," Cassese said. "We wore down in the fourth quarter because we were playing so much defense."

As UNC's lead grew, so did Lehigh's frustration, though Holman said his team knew going into the game that the Tar Heels would have to deal with some amount of physicality either way from the Mountain Hawks.

"They're not afraid to let you know that," said Holman, the Tar Heels' leader and one of five Tewaaraton Award men's finalists named this week. "We did a good job of keeping our heads whenever there was a cheap hit or whatnot. We knew they were going to foul, but you've just got to keep your head about you and focus on the long-term benefits of getting extra-man opportunities."

The Tar Heels were also able to keep the Lehigh defense unsettled by prolonging ground ball battles and guaranteeing that the UNC attackers wouldn't encounter an organized defense in transition when the ball finally squirted free. And more often than not, the attacker leading the charge was a new face for Lehigh goalkeeper Matt Poillon.

Though Poillon made a career-high 17 saves for the Mountain Hawks, he had to deal with 53 shots from such a variety of players that he had difficulty getting a bead on any of them.

"When you have that many different shooters and that many different techniques to look at, it's hard to get used to any one kind of shot," the sophomore Poillon said.

In a way, his experience was a microcosm of his entire team's struggle. Whether it was Keenan's 17-for-26 mark at centerfield, each of UNC's 11 goal-scorers or the Tar Heel defense's ability to deny open shots, the Mountain Hawks found it impossible to compensate for all of UNC's advantages at once.

"You can't beat us with one or two men," Poillon said. "You've got to get the whole team involved."

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