CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s men’s lacrosse players had high expectations to begin with.
Before the season, they identified three goals: beat Duke, capture the ACC championship, and then win the national title.
They reached two goals in one weekend – they beat Duke en route to winning their first ACC title in 17 years – and Saturday will begin their quest for the third. The success might surprise some, but not them.
“Our expectation for ourselves has always been to win the national championship,” senior midfielder Davey Emala said. “For other people outside our locker room – they can take from (the team’s success) what they like, but we try not to worry about that at all.”
The fifth-seeded Tar Heels (12-3) open the NCAA tournament on Saturday against Lehigh (12-4) at Fetzer Field at noon (ESPN2). The Mountain Hawks have won back-to-back Patriot League Championships and feature All-American goalie Matt Poillon, who backstops the No. 2 defense in the country.
“They have a terrific attack unit as well,” Tar Heels coach Joe Breschi said. “I don’t see a lot of weakness in their game.”
Lehigh might say the same thing about UNC.
With senior attackman and ACC offensive player of the year Marcus Holman leading the way, the Tar Heels have won nine consecutive games to climb to the top of the coaches’ and Nike Inside Lacrosse media poll.
Holman set UNC’s school record for career points with his five-point effort against Virginia in the ACC championship, and the Tar Heels’ attack unit of Holman, Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter is the second-highest scoring attack grouping in the country. UNC’s overall offense is the fourth-highest scoring offense in the country.
For all their offensive prowess and belief in their potential, the Tar Heels actually opened the season by splitting their first six games.
None of the three losses was particularly concerning – UNC fell to No. 13 Massachusetts, No. 2 Notre Dame in triple overtime and No. 17 Duke – but Breschi felt his team wasn’t paying close enough attention to small details at the end of games.
After a victory over Dartmouth on March 18, UNC went on the road to face top-ranked Maryland in a game that Breschi said changed the tenor of the season.
“You’re 4-3, still figuring out who the heck you are, and you go out and play Maryland in Byrd Stadium and win that one,” he said. “You talk about toughness and backs against the wall and grinding out a win – that was a huge defining moment for us.”
Flash forward to the ACC tournament and UNC got what could be another defining moment in its 18-17 semifinal win over the Blue Devils. The Tar Heels built a 15-6 lead before Duke rallied, scoring 11 of the next 12 goals to take a late 17-16 lead.
Facing what could have been a dispiriting defeat, UNC steadied itself, tying the score with 5:01 to play before Holman scored the game-winner with 1:28 to go. In particular, Breschi liked the fact that some of the little things – ground balls, faceoffs, positioning – that eluded his team in end-game scenarios earlier in the season made the difference against the Blue Devils.
“You look at a game like that and you’re like, ‘We had it in control and then we lose it,’” he said. “But you have the toughness to come back and keep battling. You put a freshman in who wins the biggest faceoff of the game, down a goal, and we score on that possession.”
After beating the Cavaliers in the ACC final, the Tar Heels might have hoped for a higher seed than No. 5.
Before the selection committee announced the tournament draw, Breschi had warned his team not to put too much stock in where UNC was seeded – no matter the pairings, the Tar Heels would have to win four games to be national champions.
Besides, he said, the selection committee couldn’t be expected to know how much confidence UNC had in itself.
“No matter what, we have a huge chip on our shoulder going into this tournament,” Emala said. “We’re still out to prove to everybody else what we know is in our locker room – the strength of the character and the talent of the kids in our locker room.
“I don’t think we needed any more expectations or motivation.”