May 19, 2013

Tar Heels' Season Ends Again in Quarterfinals

by Patrick Stevens | | Live Blog Replay

Joey Sankey (above), Jimmy Bitter and Marcus Holman, who averaged 11.5 points per game this year, combined for only two goals and three assists Sunday against Denver.
© AJ Mast

* O Pioneers! Denver Wins One for the West

INDIANAPOLIS — North Carolina's triumphant return to college lacrosse's largest stage was finally within grasp. A six-goal lead in hand, the Tar Heels were finally in position to end a 20-year absence from the NCAA tournament semifinals.

Until their offense went silent.

Until they couldn't muster any of the transition opportunities that came so easily in the first quarter.

Until Denver methodically pecked away at its deficit before earning a 12-11 victory Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Instead, fifth-seeded North Carolina (13-4) was done, arguably its most polished team in decades ousted like so many of its predecessors in the quarterfinals.

The Tar Heels led 6-0 and 8-2. They were up two with five minutes to play. But a superb offense that turned stagnant at the wrong time will be remembered as the root of Carolina's latest tournament exit, even if possessions were fleeting in the game's latter stages.

"At times you do feel pressure to make a play, but I thought our defense played as hard as they could," attackman Marcus Holman said. "They made one more play than us at the end of the day. That was the difference. The ball bounces a different way, we could have smiles on our faces."

Holman is right, of course. As electrifying as the Tar Heels were in blitzing fourth-seeded Denver (14-4) early and as muddled as they were late, they still led for more than 55 minutes and had an advantage until Eric Adamson's goal with 1:31 left.

Eric Law's winner with 13 seconds left sunk Carolina's season, which ended in puzzling fashion. Few would have been surprised by a shootout in the vein of Denver's 16-14 defeat of the Tar Heels in last year's first round.

But a sputtering offense? The possibility of attackmen Jimmy Bitter, Joey Sankey and Holman combining for two goals and three assists when they combine to average nearly 11.5 points?

"Speed of play was going to be big for us because we played so fast in the first half and we needed to keep the same sort of energy in the second half," North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. "I don't think we matched their speed of play in the second half."

Denver had its advantages, from faceoff man Chase Carraro (17-for-26) to goalie Jamie Faus (11 saves over the final 50:23 in relief of Ryan LaPlante). But North Carolina never looked truly comfortable in settled situations, especially in the second half.

The Tar Heels had only two goals and 14 shots after the break, and how they scored was telling. Defensive midfielder Mark McNeill scored his second transition goal of the day. Davey Emala collected a rebound in front of the crease and tossed it past Faus.

And that was that.

"We didn't play at the speed we normally do six-on-six," Holman said. "I think every person on our team would reiterate that. You get comfortable when you score a couple transition goals and you kind of relax when you have a 9-4 lead at halftime. We just should have played better."

And so North Carolina's absence from Memorial Day weekend continues after its seventh straight quarterfinal loss. Without that history — the final four drought, the string of quarterfinal setbacks — it is difficult not to view this season as progress.

The Tar Heels won the ACC tournament for the first time since 1996, and did so with a fairly young team. Only three seniors (Holman, Emala and defenseman Kieran McDonald) played in Sunday's defeat, and Breschi's work over the last five seasons has Carolina on the precipice of consistent national title contention.

But there's still the matter of making it back to the final four, a looming concern that accompanies the sting of such a potent team reaching the end of its season two games earlier than it hoped.

"We have a lot of guys returning, which is terrific, but it certainly doesn't make it easier now," Breschi said. "The future, we feel like we did break some ground this year with the ACC championship and breaking a few streaks here and there, but we knew it was going to take time. It's just unfortunate it had to end today."

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