May 17, 2013

MD1 Notebook: Tar Heels Staying in the Present

by Gary Lambrecht |

Freshman goalie Kieran Burke is as "cool and composed as they come," said North Carolina captain Marcus Holman, and one of many reasons the Tar Heels have reeled off 10 straight wins.
© Peyton Williams

Marcus Holman admitted that, as far back as North Carolina's first stumble of the season, he was guilty of peeking ahead to parts of the calendar that should not have concerned him. Holman wondered what that 12-11 loss to Massachusetts on Feb. 16 would mean to the Tar Heels' postseason position in May.

Three months later, Holman said he and the Tar Heels have long rid themselves of that habit. In the meantime, the wins have piled up in Chapel Hill, where single-minded and fifth-seeded Carolina (13-3) is preparing for Sunday's NCAA tournament quarterfinal clash with fourth-seeded Denver at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The Tar Heels, with the senior Holman as their lone captain and the leader of a superb attack that includes Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter, have reeled off 10 consecutive victories, making them the hottest team in the tournament. Not that it matters to Holman, who, by the way, ranks fourth in Division I with 4.94 points per game and is a serious contender for this year's Tewaaraton Award.

Holman, the 2013 ACC player of the year, addressed and dismissed the elephant in the room — the Tar Heels last participated in the final four in 1993, two years after Carolina won its fourth and last NCAA title.

"It's no secret that there has been a final four drought around here. But this is not about looking at the bracket or talking about the final four," said Holman, who has won two playoff games in his four years at Carolina. "This year, the seniors have really focused on the challenge and the opportunity at hand. We have kept things in perspective. You don't get to a final four in March. This week, it's all about Denver, just like last week was all about Lehigh [16-7 losers to the Tar Heels]."

That one-game-at-a-time mentality truly has gripped the Tar Heels since they got whipped by Duke, 11-8, way back on March 13, the day Carolina's record dropped to 3-3.

Since then, the Tar Heels also have been a study in ground-ball hustle, withering offensive firepower and defensive maturity in goal, where freshman Kieran Burke (55.1 save percentage, 12 saves per game) took some lumps early as the replacement for fifth-year senior Steven Rastivo (season-ending concussion).

Burke has become a reliable stopper in the clutch. That was evident in Carolina's epic, 18-17 win over Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals, during which Duke owned possession for huge chunks of the second half and erased a nine-goal deficit by taking a 17-16 lead. But the Heels showed their mettle by scoring the last two goals — including the game-winner by Holman — and Burke made the game-saving stop with six seconds left.

"We all stayed focused and persistent in that game, just like we have [throughout the 10-game streak]," Holman said. "[Burke] would be the first to admit he struggled early in the year. He's definitely grown up as a freshman. He's as cool and composed as they come."

On Sunday, the Tar Heels will try to avenge last year's 16-14 loss to Denver in the first round.

Don't Forget About Cornell's Defense

When you think Cornell, it's almost impossible not to think Pannell first and Pannell-Mock second.

Fifth-year senior Rob Pannell is the three-time, Ivy League player of the year and one of the greatest ever to grace the attack position at the collegiate level. Senior Steve Mock is arguably the best pure finisher left in the tournament. Mock (52 goals) ranks second in goals per game (3.47) and has scored at least four goals on eight occasions, thanks largely to Pannell, whose 5.44 points per game (third in Division I) reflects his pinpoint passing into the crease area. Pannell ranks fourth in the country with 2.94 assists per game.

Pannell and Mock overwhelmed a usually stingy Maryland defense in last week's 16-8 blowout in College Park. They each scored four goals, while two of Pannell's three assists went to Mock.

But the Big Red's dynamic duo overshadowed a great defensive effort, which also has come to be expected in Ithaca. Sure, the Big Red allowed a combined 27 goals in late-season losses to Syracuse and Princeton, and gave up 12 in a two-goal win over Harvard.

On the flip side, Cornell has held nine opponents to single digits, and is 8-1 in those games. The Big Red also has won 10 games by at least five goals. Cornell ranks third in the NCAA with 10 caused turnovers per game.

Next up for Cornell is a prolific Ohio State offense. That starts with a three-headed Canadian monster led by senior Logan Schuss, whose 4.31-point average makes him the Buckeyes' version of Pannell. Schuss is what fuels midfielder Jesse King and attackman Turner Evans, the other left-handed finishers from up north.

"[Schuss] is not a flashy guy. He doesn't wow you with his speed," said senior Jason Noble, the versatile leader of the Cornell defense. "But he can catch the ball anywhere and finish from anywhere. [The Buckeyes] love to pick and roll and force matchups."

"[Ohio State's] top six is as good as anybody out there. They handle the ball in tight spaces," Cornell coach Ben DeLuca said. "They've got some playmakers that do things we don't normally see. It's probably the quickest group we've seen."

Yale Wants Out of Big Red Shadow

It may have pained him a bit to say it, but Yale senior defenseman Peter Johnson gave credit to Cornell, the Bulldogs' Ivy League rival, for spurring the Yale program onward in its development in recent years under coach Andy Shay.

The Bulldogs have ridden a hard-nosed defense (eight goals allowed per game), a potent, one-two punch on offense in attackman Brandon Mangan and Conrad Oberbeck and a superb faceoff man in Dylan Levings to a 12-4 record. A victory over no. 1 seed Syracuse on Saturday will send Yale to its second final four.

Like others in the conference, Yale has been chasing Cornell since the Big Red wrestled Ivy League supremacy back from Princeton nearly a decade ago. The Bulldogs have won the Ivy tournament two years in a row, and knocked off the Pannell-less Big Red in the tournament semifinals in 2012, bumping Cornell out of the NCAAs in the process.

"We've been trying to get to [Cornell's] level for a good while," said Johnson, a first-team Ivy selection for the past two years. "You've got to tip your hat to them. They have been the bully. They've earned that."

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