May 9, 2014

NCAA Notes: Heels Relish Another Shoot at Pioneers

by Gary Lambrecht | | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Hoping to advance to Memorial Day weekend for the first time since 1993, North Carolina will have to find a way to top a Denver squad that has ended its season in the tourmanent back-to-back years. (Peyton Williams)

As the North Carolina Tar Heels watched the NCAA tournament bracket unfold Sunday night, some of them expected to travel for the first round to South Bend to face Notre Dame, or possibly to Philadelphia to take on Penn.

Then, Denver popped up as a no. 5 seed, and a number of Tar Heels, such as senior defensive midfielder Ryan Creighton, thought Carolina likely was headed further west. Creighton was right. He and the rest of the Tar Heels could not be more excited to face a team that has tortured them in the past two tournaments.

"There's a lot of familiarity between us," Creighton said. "We've scrimmaged [Denver] the last three years, and they've knocked us out [of the NCAAs] in the last two years. We've been excited all week in practice. There's no better way to get [the postseason] going."

If unseeded Carolina (10-4) is going to make its first Memorial Day weekend appearance since 1993, it seems fitting the Tar Heels would have to go through Denver (14-2). Two years ago, Carolina dropped a 16-14, first-round NCAA tournament game at home to Denver. In last year's quarterfinals in Indianapolis, Carolina scored the first six goals, held a 9-4 lead at halftime, before Denver charged back to win, 12-11.

"That's a game I'll never forget," junior attackman Joey Sankey said. "You never really live down that pain. We controlled that game for the most part. I feel like we've done a better job overall at closing games this year. We're a hungry group."

It remains to be seen whether a shootout develops between two of the top four offenses in Division I. It remains to be seen whether the Tar Heels, whose four losses have come by a total of five goals – all against ACC competition – will blink in the fourth quarter of a close game at Denver.

It also remains to be seen whether Carolina's defense, anchored by sophomore goalie Kieran Burke, can hold another high-powered offense in the 11-goal range and give Sankey and attackman Jimmy Bitter a chance to make game-winning plays.

One thing is clear. The Tar Heels, who are 1-3 in one-goal games and have survived numerous injuries and a first midfield unit (Chad Tutton, Shane Simpson, Steve Pontrello) that has produced a modest 46 goals, can't make history without knocking off that ghost waiting for them on Sunday in the Mile High city.

Despite Focus on Thompsons, Can Albany Stop Loyola O?

The pregame chatter surrounding Saturday's first-round clash between third-seeded Loyola (15-1) and unseeded Albany (11-5) has been centered on a consistent theme.

Can Albany sustain its explosive, top-scoring offense against a senior-laden, Loyola defense that is built to play shutdown lacrosse seemingly against anyone? Can the irresistible force known as all-world attackman Lyle Thompson do his thing against the immovable object known as Fletch – aka Loyola senior Joe Fletcher?

To me, an equally large if not bigger question is what is Albany going to do about Loyola's offense? The Greyhounds, the most balanced team on paper heading into the NCAA tournament, are the fifth-highest scoring team (13.3 goals) in the game, led by senior Justin Ward (53 assists), the best director not named Thompson in the sport.

Loyola plays fast, smart and unselfish offense, and the weapons come from everywhere. Attackman Brian Schultz (36 goals) is red hot. Midfielders Matt Sawyer, Brian Sherlock and second-line leader Kevin Ryan have taken turns having monster games. Then there's attackman Nikko Pontrello (50 goals), who runs over and by people and scores with either hand from all sorts of distances and angles.

"[Loyola] is a tricky team. They set a lot of inside picks. They use spaces well. They really like to push the ball like we do," said Albany defenseman Doug Eich, who will match up with Pontrello. "The theme of this game is going to be the pace. Both teams create a lot of chances to score goals. It's going to be a fun game."

Look for a good amount of turnovers, a result in part of that fast pace and two hard-riding attack units. And don't be surprised if Loyola is moving on to the quarterfinal round in Long Island after approaching 20 goals in the Greyhounds' farewell performance of 2014 at Ridley Athletic Complex.

Familiar Foes Virginia and Hopkins Square Off for 15th Playoff Meeting

No two teams have played each other more in an NCAA tournament setting than Virginia and Johns Hopkins. When the eighth-seeded Cavaliers host unseeded Hopkins on Sunday, it will mark the 15th postseason meeting between the schools. The Blue Jays hold an 8-6 edge and have barely outscored Virginia the playoffs, 152-149.

Virginia coach Dom Starsia, who has enjoyed four wins in the last five playoff meetings against Hopkins, said this week's contest signifies the growth of the sport. Remember, it wasn't too long ago that, if they met in May, Virginia and Hopkins automatically would be doing so during Memorial Day weekend or in the quarterfinals, not in the first round.

"I remember back in 1993 [his first season coaching in Charlottesville], we were a no. 5 seed, and we got to play the team from the west [in the first round]. We clobbered Notre Dame," Starsia recalled.

"Back then, the first round was a warm-up for the bigger games. When I look at this game [between Virginia and Hopkins] now, it looks like a lot of games this weekend. You're really going to have to fight your way out of the first round."

The winner most likely will get top-seeded Duke in the quarterfinals in at the University of Delaware on May 18. Virginia and Hopkins will battle for the 88th time overall to decide who moves on.

"I sort of consider [the Blue Jays] an ACC school. We almost know each other too well. There's contempt from the familiarity," said Starsia, who plans to keep Hopkins on the traditional March portion of his schedule for the indefinite future.

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