The North Carolina men’s lacrosse team played in its first NCAA semifinal in more than two decades Saturday afternoon. It had no trouble making up for lost time.
Sophomore Chris Cloutier matched an NCAA tournament record with nine goals as the unseeded Tar Heels blistered seventh-seeded Loyola 18-13 at Lincoln Financial Field to advance to Monday’s title game.
Cloutier joins Syracuse’s Gary Gait (1988 quarterfinals against Navy) and Brown’s Oliver Marti (1992 first round against Loyola) as the only players to score nine goals in a game since the NCAA tournament was established in 1971.
“It was just working today,” Cloutier said. “We were running our offense to a ‘T’ and luckily I was just getting open and getting open shots. … It seemed like whenever I got my hands free, someone found me.”
North Carolina (11-6), the eighth unseeded team to reach the final and the first since 2012, will face either top-seeded Maryland or fifth-seeded Brown as it attempts to claim its fifth national title.
“They know they’re in a great spot,” North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. “I continue to talk about (how) there’s no pressure on these guys. None. There’s been a lot of pressure on the entire program and previous teams, but we barely got in the tournament. It was almost a relief that we got in and now we have an opportunity to let our hair down and play, and that’s what these guys are doing.”
The Tar Heels were once lacrosse royalty, winning four NCAA championships between 1981 and 1991. But the program endured a long drought, losing seven consecutive quarterfinals after reaching the championship game in 1993.
North Carolina nearly scored 23 years’ worth of goals in the first half against the Greyhounds (14-4), who had won 10 in a row prior to Saturday’s pummeling. The Tar Heels jumped to a 3-0 lead, and faceoffs were a significant factor as Stephen “Bones” Kelly won 14 of 21 in the first half.
“I remember thinking during the game, ‘We’re very lucky to have Bones,’ ” Cloutier said. “If faceoffs go the other way, the game goes completely the other way.”
The Tar Heels were also fortunate to have Cloutier, a Canadian who moved from midfield to attack this season. He was one of several players who helped carve up a Loyola defense that yielded more than 12 goals in a game just once before Saturday.
North Carolina built a 9-2 lead by the end of the first quarter, chasing Loyola goalie Jacob Stover. The freshman, who was stopping 59.1 percent of the shots on goal he faced, made only two saves.
The Tar Heels’ nine goals were the most in a championship weekend quarter since Johns Hopkins had nine goals in the final period in the 2003 semifinals against Syracuse.
North Carolina continued to expand its lead, with Kelly’s faceoff work helping the Tar Heels score three times in a 15-second span to push their lead to 12-2 in the middle of the second quarter. Cloutier scored two of those goals and had six at the half.
“Every time he got the ball, I thought he was going to score,” said senior attackman Steve Pontrello, who assisted on two of Cloutier’s goals.
When Loyola made things interesting by closing within 14-8, Cloutier scored back-to-back goals to become the first player in tournament history to reach eight goals in a semifinal or title game. No one had scored seven times this late in the tournament since 1976.
After the Greyhounds inched within 16-12 with 6 minutes, 25 seconds to go, Cloutier got free to match the NCAA tournament record and provide an extra cushion. Cloutier also bested North Carolina’s single game record by a goal.
“We just didn’t really get that second that we needed when (defenseman) David (Manning) was kind of a half-step off him,” Loyola coach Charley Toomey said. “Credit North Carolina. They found him and the kid flat-out finished.”