April 19, 2015
Seconds after the University of Notre Dame No. 1-ranked men's lacrosse team finished a lightning-strike three-goal rally in the final 1:16 to stun No. 2 North Carolina 15-14, most of the overflow crowd of 4,522 stormed the turf at Arlotta Stadium to embrace the Fighting Irish.
"I think this is the greatest atmosphere . . . probably in lacrosse history," said Notre Dame's Jim Marlatt, who assisted on each of the three goals in the final 1:16. "An entire tournament of little kids crashed the field at the end. I've never seen anything like it."
As Irish men's lacrosse fans celebrated a rally from two goals down in 76 seconds that will long live in Notre Dame's rich sports lore, Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan took his eyes off of the tidal wave of emotion for a moment of even deeper significance.
"I looked up at my dad in the stands," said Corrigan of his father, Gene Corrigan. "He was the athletic director at Notre Dame in 1980 when they made lacrosse a varsity sport. I was wondering what's he thinking about seeing a packed house, people coming off the hill to jump our team, two of the best teams in the country playing right here. I had that thought that this is a great moment for the sport out here because I know where it started many years ago."
Irish attacker Matt Kavanagh, who scored the winning goal with seven seconds left, also understood the impact that the passion and performance under pressure of Notre Dame's storied comeback will have on the sport.
"It was good for the younger guys to see the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country," Kavanagh said. "That was awesome. I think that's the first time we've seen the field stormed here. Our fans were great all day."
Kavanagh's goal capped a stunning turn of events in the final minutes that brought an Atlantic Coast Conference men's lacrosse regular-season championship to Notre Dame. North Carolina grabbed a 14-12 lead with 2:19 left in the fourth quarter. The dramatic rally started at the 1:26 mark when Kavanagh was shoved into the goal post on a breakaway and the Tar Heels were assessed an un-releasable penalty. It marked the only penalty of the day against the Tar Heels. The Irish made use of the man-up advantage and made history.
Nine seconds after the penalty, Kavanagh, about 10 yards straight in front of the goal, took a pass from Marlatt.
North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 13.
The overflow crowd that stretched across the south end and ringed the hillside roared.
With 33 seconds left, Marlatt came in from the left side again and found Sergio Perkovic.
North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 14.
Irish nation jumped to its feet and shook Arlotta Stadium with a thunderous ovation.
And, with seven seconds left, Marlatt once again struck from the left and delivered a bullet pass to Kavanagh, who threaded the needle.
Notre Dame 15, North Carolina 14.
After the final seconds ticked off only the gold helmets of the Irish players were visible as they were swallowed up in an ocean of jubilation on the field.
"That was crazy," Kavanagh said of the last-minute drama. "We hadn't gotten a man up all day, and we're one of the best man-up units in the country. Taking a penalty late, we were confident, even down two. We practice these situations all the time, especially late in the game, down a couple of goals, with an extra man. We're comfortable in that situation.
"Jim made a great pass to me. That's a play we executed a couple of games ago against Duke, with a man up. I was setting a seal for Sergio. North Carolina had good ball pressure behind, so we reversed it. I was still in the crease, and Jimmy Marlatt made a great pass. It handcuffed me a little bit, but he got it there in time and I just shot it."
Corrigan loved the courage and composure of his players.
"Those guys had guts," Corrigan said of his players making pressure-packed plays. "They're not afraid of the moment. Those guys stepped up, and they've got the wherewithal to know what a good risk is and a bad risk and the courage to take the risk that needs to be taken at a time like that."
What was critical for the Irish on each of their last two goals was the gutty play of P.J. Finley to win the draw after losing 10 of the previous 14 draws in the second half, and the previous three in the fourth quarter.
"P.J. is a battler," Corrigan said. "He's a competitor. Sometimes, in this game, it comes down to the grittiness and the competitiveness. It's not about perfect execution or the perfect play. It's about guys competing and doing something to keep a groundball alive for one more second, and maybe the ball bounces your way. P.J. is the epitome of that."
Finley's ability to gut out the draws that led to the tying and winning goals put the fight in the Fighting Irish.
"You just have to step up," Finley said. "I couldn't be happier that my teammates trust me to put me out there for those last few face-offs. It means the world to me. I'm so humbled that I could be the guy to go out there for our team.
"Nothing changed in those last few face-offs. You just have to stick to what you've been doing and have that ultimate confidence in yourself and your team. I love my wing guys. I know they're going to fight for it. I know if I just do the best I can and put myself in a position where we have a chance to win it, we'll be all right."
Finley said practice situations helped him be ready for the moment the Irish needed him the most.
"We practice extremely hard," Finley said. "I was getting beat up by our second guy, John Travisano, all week. Something like that happening in practice gets you even more focused, more ready. You can't let anything else come into your mind in those last few face-offs. You just have to be thinking about what you have to do."
One after another of Notre Dame's players said they were comfortable being in an uncomfortable situation. Corrigan has the Irish practice end-game scenarios that replicate exactly the type of situation the Irish found themselves in, two goals down with less than two minutes to play. Being prepared for the situation and being familiar with how to execute in a man-up situation weren't new to the Irish.
"Our guys know that until the final horn blows, it's not over," Corrigan said. "We've won a lot of close games, last-second type games in the past couple of years. They know you just keep playing. No matter what happens, it just creates the next scenario.
"We spend a lot of time on those end-of-game scenarios, so the players aren't panicked. They know what we're going to do. They look to us, they know we're going to do one of a few things and then they go out and do it. The execution of some of the things we did down the stretch was pretty flawless."
Still, Corrigan said the Irish had to make some gutty plays in sudden-change moments.
"It was a game of teams capitalizing," Corrigan said. "I don't know that I can remember a game where there was less scripted action than that one. You spend a lot of time working on some scripted things, and then you play a game like that and it's all about guys making plays . . . both ways. That was a tremendous lacrosse game, and that's a really good team (North Carolina)."
Marlatt said the Irish were never giving up the fight.
"The way we play as a team, we're never out of a game," Marlatt said. "We can get a couple of turnovers, we can win a couple of face-offs.
"We were down two with about 90 seconds left, and there wasn't a head down. I even said, going into the huddle, 'This is the fun part. Let's go do it.' Our man-up has been playing great all year. There are a number of different guys who can contribute in that unit. Everyone is in the spot that fits them perfectly. With the penalty, an un-releasable, we were able to string a couple of goals together."
Corrigan said the Irish are grounded enough to know this moment isn't the pinnacle of the season.
"We're going to enjoy the heck of this moment and this day, but tomorrow we have to get back to work," Corrigan said. "We have to make sure we're keeping an eye on getting better all of the time. We won the game today. I don't know that that makes us better than Carolina, and we're probably going to see them again. We won the game against Syracuse, and I don't know that that makes us better than them. It made us better than them on that day. We're probably going to see Syracuse again. We just have to keep getting better. We have to challenge ourselves to get better. When you play in a league like this, you're going to see these teams two or three times a season."
Kavanagh said the Irish appreciate the challenge teams the caliber of North Carolina provide.
"We've been battled-tested," Kavanagh said. "We were No. 2 playing against Syracuse when they were No. 1, and we came back in that game. We play in the ACC, and when you play in the ACC every game you're playing is against a top 10 team. That's who you're going to be seeing in May. It's pretty cool, week in and week out, playing against that kind of competition."
As the mob scene started to ebb, Marlatt allowed the feeling of Saturday's spectacular moment to soak in, for a bit, before focusing on the ACC Championship next week.
"I knew, going into this week, it was a sellout," Marlatt said. "A lot of us were worried if we could get tickets for our families, if the students could get tickets. It all worked out great. It was an unbelievable atmosphere from the start. I'm sorry we made everybody nervous for a little while, but it was a great ending."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent