April 30, 2017
By John Heisler
Seldom in history has a defending NCAA champion men’s lacrosse team found itself on the potential final day of the season playing not just for an Atlantic Coast Conference title but also needing that same win to even be considered for the upcoming NCAA bracket.
But that’s the place 18th-rated North Carolina found itself Sunday. Meanwhile sixth-ranked Notre Dame--after helping push the Tar Heels into that position with a one-goal win over those same Heels eight days ago in South Bend--couldn’t withstand the early emotion and play of the Heels. Carolina grabbed a 4-0 advantage seven and a half minutes into the contest—and even though the Irish effectively played the Heels even the rest of the way it wasn’t enough to prevent a 14-10 North Carolina victory.
That Tar Heel win, coupled with its one-goal victory Friday night over top-ranked Syracuse, pushed the Carolina record to 8-7 (a loss in either game would have eliminated the defending champs from consideration since at least a .500 record is required for NCAA consideration).
The Irish, now 8-4, had jumped into the top spot in the NCAA RPI by virtue of their win Friday over third-rated Duke in the semifinals, coupled with the Syracuse loss. Notre Dame plays next Saturday at Army to finish the regular season—and NCAA bids are extended next Sunday.
This marked the fourth straight year the number three and four seeds played in the ACC championship game—with the Irish benefitting from the first of those four when they won as the number-four seed in their first year in the conference in 2014.
This first meeting between North Carolina and Notre Dame in ACC Championship play came on a muggy, partly sunny, breezy, 80-degree day in Durham, North Carolina.
North Carolina was trying for its first ACC title since 2013 and only its second since 1996—and maybe the Heels somehow preferred playing on the home field of their top rival. Interestingly, six of the Heels’ defeats in 2017 came in Chapel Hill—their only road loss came in South Bend.
The Irish, who tried a different uniform combination with their white home jerseys and blue road shorts, got off on the wrong foot against a desperate, potent Tar Heel unit now averaging 14 goals per game in its last five outings against Notre Dame.
“No one can question the heart of this team, right?” Irish coach Kevin Corrigan noted before the game in the Koskinen Stadium locker room. “We get comfortable leads in the last two games, we look good, we’re feeling good and then we go through a stretch where we don’t play as well. A team with less heart and will maybe gives away those games and says, ‘It’s not our day.’
“To become a great team we’ve got to put the heart and the head together—not giving them the easy stuff, making them grind and earn everything they get, being smart and patient.”
In a weird statistical quirk, Notre Dame won the first five face-offs of the game but over the same stretch turned the ball over five times—and that played into Carolina scoring 58 seconds into the contest and building that 4-0 advantage by the 7:43 nark of the opening period (the second of those after an Irish penalty). The last of those Tar Heel goals came by senior defenseman Jack Lambert (he also had two assists) after coming into the tournament with only a single goal in 2017--and then notching two Friday night against Syracuse.
Irish rookie Bryan Costabile put the Irish on the board on a jump shot from around the back of the goal at 3:47 of the period—and the defense did its part in holding Carolina to a single shot and forcing three turnovers after the fourth Tar Heel goal. For the first time all year Notre Dame faced a three-goal deficit (at 4-1) after one period. That single Notre Dame tally marked its lowest scoring opening period other than a 0-0 tie against Maryland.
After a Brendan Gleason score three minutes into the second period, Carolina responded with three in a row, the last two of those by Chris Cloutier, for a 7-2 differential. Drew Schantz’s goal 34 seconds later accounted for the 7-3 halftime margin that came despite Notre Dame winning 10 of 12 face-offs. After six first-period turnovers, the Irish had zero over the second 15 minutes.
Offered Corrigan at half to his squad, “The winning plays in this game have not been made. We’ve got to get back to doing what we do to be at our best. We’ve got to want the ball more than they do.”
After a Carolina goal, Notre Dame mounted a comeback with three consecutive scores—by Costabile, Gleason and Pierre Byrne (those three coming over a 3:16 span). That made it an 8-6 game—and meant the Tar Heels found themselves outscored 11-1 combined in the third periods Friday and Sunday.
But the Tar Heels enabled themselves to put up six goals in the final period by virtue of winning 10 of 11 face-offs during that quarter (after trailing in that category 13-4 over the first three periods). With the Irish poised to complete the rebound, Carolina fired in three consecutive goals in a 2:19 period early in the last period to regain an 11-6 margin.
Freshman attack Brian Willetts, Gleason (completing his first career hat trick), Ryder Garnsey and Bobby Collins came up with fourth-period scores—but they were not enough to withstand four in that same quarter by Luke Goldstock (three in a 5:40 span to finish the Carolina scoring).
“We’ll go back and prepare for Army this week and we’ll get better. We’re not going to hang our heads—we’ve got to come and be more determined,” said Corrigan to his squad after it ended.
“We have yet to play our best lacrosse. We’ve done good things in different areas, but we have yet to put it all together. That’s what’s in front of us.”
Carolina became only the fourth number-four seed to win the ACC Championship (also Syracuse in 2016, Notre Dame in 2014 and Duke in 1995).
Evidence of Corrigan’s final assessment came visibly over the last week. The Irish played one of their best defensive games of 2017 Friday night in shutting out Duke over the first half—yet on either side of that gem against that Notre Dame defense came 13- and 14-goal efforts by Carolina, most goals allowed all year by the Irish.
May arrives on Monday—and that’s when teams like Notre Dame (and now possibly North Carolina again) will be playing to make dreams come true.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.