In the most unexpected circumstances and the most frantic of ways, North Carolina is back on top of the men’s college lacrosse world.
The Tar Heels erased a two-goal deficit in the last four minutes of regulation, then earned their first championship in a quarter-century when Chris Cloutier buried a Michael Tagliaferri feed in overtime to earn a 14-13 victory over top-seeded Maryland before 26,749 at Lincoln Financial Field.
Players stormed the field, and ebullient coach Joe Breschi spent much of the next half-hour hugging nearly everyone in sight as North Carolina savored its first title since 1991 after years of being labeled as one of the sport’s underachievers.
“We just won the national championship,” Breschi said. “I just can’t believe it. I’m stunned.”
North Carolina (12-6) is the first unseeded team to claim the NCAA tournament in the event’s 46-year history and the first six-loss team to ever hoist the trophy.
“Everyone calls us the roller-coaster ride,” said Cloutier, who finished with five goals to earn most outstanding player honors for the tournament. “But when the playoffs came around, it was all just one big incline.”
Connor Kelly scored four goals for the Terrapins (17-3), who lost their ninth consecutive NCAA final. They last won the championship in 1975.
North Carolina owned one of the sport’s other noteworthy droughts, going 23 years between Memorial Day weekend appearances. Once there, the Tar Heels blitzed Loyola and then secured the fifth national title in program history.
Members of the 1991 team were honored at halftime for the 25th anniversary of that championship. Also in attendance were members of the Tar Heels’ women’s lacrosse team, which beat Maryland a day earlier in the Philadelphia suburbs to claim a national title. North Carolina joined 1994 Princeton as the only schools to win both the men’s and women’s lacrosse titles in the same season.
“It’s probably the best feeling in the world,” senior attackman Steve Pontrello said. “I’m so happy for this team, this program, these alumni, these players, our fans. We deserve this one, and this is the best feeling I’ve ever felt.”
It was arguably the least likely of Breschi’s eight North Carolina teams to reach the sport’s summit. And after Maryland brushed aside the Tar Heels’ 4-0 early lead, it seemed this game might slip away.
The Terps led 13-11 entering the final four minutes, only for Luke Goldstock and Patrick Kelly to score in a 31-second span. But attackman Goldstock drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for retaliating against Maryland long pole Mike McCarney with four seconds left.
Maryland burned off the rest of regulation and took possession to start overtime. Once there, North Carolina goalie Brian Balkam (13 saves) stopped Connor Kelly’s shot to give the Tar Heels possession.
“There was never a worry,” defensive midfielder Jake Matthai said. “It was all business. You fall back on your training at that point, and that’s what we did. We played our scheme to a T. We got an outside shot. I’m pretty sure Balkam took it to the cup, which was a good place to take it if you’re going to make a national championship save.”
After a timeout, Cloutier, whose 19 postseason goals broke a tournament record, got a perfect look on the doorstep only for Maryland goalie Kyle Bernlohr to make an absurd stuff. But McCarney was called for a crosscheck in the ensuing scrum, handing the Tar Heels an extra-man chance.
Cloutier didn’t miss again, capping an unexpected run that included earning one of the final spots in the field, a quarterfinal trip to Columbus, Ohio, where Breschi’s 3-year-old son Michael died in a car accident in 2004, and victories over four seeded teams.
“We’ve been playing with a lot of emotion,” Cloutier said. “It was just so special to do it for coach Breschi and after everything he’s been through and the alumni from last year. I just remember being in the locker room and watching everyone in very emotional moment, and they were all here today. There’s nothing better.”