North Carolina

Men’s lacrosse: Tar Heels finally beat Pioneers

Senior attackman Jimmy Bitter knows the Denver Pioneers all too well and for all the wrong reasons.

When he was a freshman on the North Carolina men’s lacrosse team, he experienced the bitter taste of losing to the currently top-ranked Pioneers in the NCAA playoffs.

He experienced it again his sophomore year and again last season.

It’s safe to say Bitter and the No. 4 Tar Heels don’t have fond memories of Denver, but on Friday UNC made an attempt to reconcile its losses in the NCAA tournament with a 12-10 statement win against the previously undefeated No. 1 team.

“To see the disappointment on the seniors last year, that’s going to motivate anyone,” sophomore Stephen Kelly said. “This meant a ton to our team and our program to get that monkey off our back.”

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the Tar Heels. Starting the game with a stagnant offense the team found itself down at halftime 5-3. The Tar Heels peppered the cage with 26 shots but only forced Denver goalie Ryan LaPlante to make four saves.

Bitter, who usually exhibits a flawless sidearm shot that pings the upper right corner of the net, was hitting the pipe instead.

Chad Tutton, who usually finds ways to get around defenders and fake out goal keepers with unorthodox lefty shots, couldn’t find his rhythm.

“It gets frustrating obviously,” Bitter said. “We had a lot of pipes in the first quarter.

“We knew we’re a good offense, and we had to stick to what we do best, which is moving the ball and playing fast. ”

But in the second half, all that changed.

After going down 6-3 early in the third quarter, the Tar Heels went on a 5-0 run that gave them the lead and all the momentum.

The pace of the UNC offense increased. Vastly improved ball movement replaced errant shots, and man-up goals replaced sloppy turnovers.

Everything was clicking.

While it was only a February win, that doesn’t take away from the jubilation of knocking off a team that has ended UNC’s season the past three years.

“They’re going to be better down the road and so are we,” coach Joe Breschi said. “But at the end of the day, it was a good hard-fought February game and I’m proud of our guys (for finishing) strong.

“Because they’re a talented group, no question.”