May 12, 2014

Denver Breaks Mold, Shows It Can Win with Defense

by Calvin Jouard | | Twitter

Denver held Joey Sankey and company to just six goals, bouncing North Carolina from the NCAA tournament for the third straight year. (Trevor Brown)

DENVER -- At first glance, it seems appropriate to break out the corny, age-old adage about how history seems to repeat itself.

The Denver and North Carolina men's lacrosse teams met for the third time Saturday in as many years, each meeting a high-stakes NCAA tournament showdown. And each time, the Pioneers have found a way to end the season for the Tar Heels, most recently by virtue of a 9-6 victory Saturday that propelled fifth-seeded Denver to the NCAA quarterfinals.

But a trained eye will notice the difference. Saturday's win was by no means a complete doppelganger of those that sent North Carolina packing in 2012 and 2013.

"They just didn't want it to be their last game, that's really the easiest way to put it," Denver coach Bill Tierney said. "They just fought and clawed and scratched against a great Carolina team. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't what we thought."

Fans expected high-scoring entertainment. In 2012, the Pioneers outlasted the Tar Heels 16-14. In 2013, North Carolina coughed up a six-goal lead in what ended up a 12-11 Denver win.

But Saturday, the teams combined for just 15 goals on a drizzly Denver night.

"If you told me we were going to get nine [goals], I would have told you it would be our last game," Tierney said.

Both North Carolina (13.57 goals per game) and Denver (13.44) boasted high-powered offenses coming into the NCAA tournament, ranking third and fourth in Division I, respectively. But defense defined this game, and the Pioneers will need to continue to be stout with dangerous Drexel looming in the NCAA quarterfinals.

"To believe that we don't have to outscore a team every time, that's a huge step for our program," Tierney said.

"This is the best defensive team I've played on, and today was the best defensive performance that I've seen while watching Division I lacrosse in the last four years, not just by this team either," added Denver captain and midfielder Jeremy Noble, who had a goal and an assist Saturday.

For North Carolina coach Joe Breschi, there are other ways in which Denver team has broken the mold of history, particularly on the offensive end.

"This is probably his [Tierney's] deepest group," Breschi said. "They don't have one guy that can't break you down."

Denver will pass from the realm of familiarity to that of obscurity when preparing for Drexel, which on Sunday defeated Penn (a team that beat the Pioneers during the regular season) for its first-ever NCAA tournament victory. Denver and Drexel have met just twice, with the Dragons claiming a 9-8 victory in the teams' most recent encounter in 2009. They have never played during Tierney's tenure at Denver.

Drexel is riding high after upsetting the fourth-seeded Quakers and will have the obvious advantage on faceoffs. The Dragons' cumulative 61.8 faceoff win percentage going into Sunday ranked fourth in Division I. The Pioneers, who lost All-American faceoff man Chase Carraro to graduation in 2013, rank 41st at 47.5 percent.

"You get to this point in the year, you know you're going to play a great team," Tierney said. "If you get to this point in the year, you really don't care who you're playing. As I told the players, my two favorite words during this time of the year are 'practice Monday.'"

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