INDIANAPOLIS — North Carolinas two-decade absence from the NCAA lacrosse tournament semifinals was finally poised to end Sunday.
Then its vaunted offense sputtered and Denver rallied for a 12-11 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The fifth-seeded Tar Heels (13-4), who had won their past 10 games, squandered a six-goal lead and fell short of their first trip to the final four since 1993.
Eric Law scored the game-winner with 13 seconds remaining for the fourth-seeded Pioneers (14-4), the only lead Denver had all day.
We didnt play at the speed we normally do six-on-six, Tar Heels senior attackman Marcus Holman said. I think every person on our team would reiterate that. You get comfortable when you score a couple transition goals and you kind of relax when you have a 9-4 lead at halftime. We just should have played better.
North Carolina couldnt have played much better in the early stages. With the help of three goals from defensemen and defensive midfielders, the Tar Heels jumped to a 6-0 lead and chased Denver goalie Ryan LaPlante less than 10 minutes in.
The Tar Heels didnt permit Denver to draw close the rest of the first half, but they never put the Pioneers away, either.
It proved costly as Denver maintained a game-long dominance in faceoffs (17 of 26) and gradually ate into the Tar Heels advantage in the second half.
The potent North Carolina attack of Holman, Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey combined to average more than 11 points coming in, but had two goals and three assists against the Pioneers.
Denver goalie Jamie Faus (11 saves) shut out all three in the second half as the Tar Heels struggled to generate opportunities in settled situations.
Speed of play was going to be big for us because we played so fast in the first half and we needed to keep the same sort of energy in the second half, North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. I dont think we matched their speed of play in the second half.
North Carolina still led by two entering the last five minutes, but goals from Denvers Colin Scott and Eric Adamson tied it. Law then collected a rebound with the shot clock winding down and put it past Tar Heels goalie Kieran Burke in the closing seconds.
At times you do feel pressure to make a play, but I thought our defense played as hard as they could, Holman said. They made one more play than us at the end of the day. That was the difference. The ball bounces a different way, we could have smiles on our faces.
It would have meant a substantial breakthrough for North Carolina, which once was one of the nations dominant programs and finally ended a 17-year ACC championship drought last month.
A return to the biggest national stage will have to wait, though, after the Tar Heels lost their seventh consecutive quarterfinal in perhaps the most wrenching fashion possible.
We feel like we did break some ground this year with the ACC championship and breaking a few streaks here and there, but we knew it was going to take time, Breschi said. Its just unfortunate it had to end today.