CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said never before had he been part of a team that blew a nine-goal lead.
Theres a first time for everything.
Despite Dukes furious second-half comeback, though, the Tar Heels came out with a 18-17 victory in the highest scoring game in ACC tournament history. No. 1 UNC (11-3) will face Virginia for the championship Sunday.
It was the most goals Duke had ever scored in a loss.
The No. 5 Blue Devils (11-5) lost for the first time since March 2 mainly due to their slow start. Duke was flat in the beginning, and coach John Danowski tried a variety of options to jumpstart his team. He changed goalies. He called timeouts. He switched some of his defensive personnel. But at the half, North Carolina held a 13-6 lead. Duke had just two saves.
The Tar Heels who had lost 10 straight postseason games against the Blue Devils, dating back to 1996 scored the first two goals of the third period as well, building their lead to 15-6.
Then Duke scored eight straight goals.
When you take a beating like that, you really challenge yourself and look in the mirror and say, What am I going to do when I get hit in the face like that? said Josh Offit, who scored three goals for Duke. We took it personally.
Offit started the run. Then Jordan Wolf scored twice, diving right in front of the crease both times, to make the score 15-9 UNC. The run continued, with Josh Dionne adding a goal on an extra man opportunity. A Myles Jones score that cut UNCs lead to 15-11 forced a Tar Heels timeout.
The spark to Dukes run was the performance of Brendan Fowler, the ACCs best faceoff man, at the X. Fowler won 77 percent of the third-quarter faceoffs, slightly better than his 73 percent average for that period.
With Duke controlling possession, UNCs offense could only watch as the lead shrank.
For me, personally, just being at the other end of the field, you do feel a sense of helplessness when you cant get the ball, UNCs Marcus Holman said. We felt confident that when we got the ball we could get good looks on goal. Its tough when you have a limited amount of possessions like that because you feel like you have to rush to score.
The Tar Heels Chad Tutton finally stopped the Duke run with an extra man goal to give the Tar Heels a 16-14 lead with 9:52 left in the fourth quarter. Duke took its first and only lead of the game at 17-16 when defenseman Bill Conners ripped off a shot from 8 yards away with his longstick. With 6:12 still on the clock, both teams had several more opportunities.
The game winner came with 1:28 left, as Holman went high to put a shot in the back of the net to give UNC the 18-17 edge. A final shot by David Lawson was saved by Kieran Burke.
I felt as the ball was moving through the air that I could get a step on the defenseman, Holman said of his game-winner. I felt like I had an opportunity to let one rip, and I just shot it.
It felt good.