The North Carolina men's lacrosse team rallied from a three-goal deficit in the second half to nip host Navy, 9-8, on Saturday, but there was no convincing R.J. Wickham about which team was the real victor.
"I was disappointed we lost because as hard as we played, I don't feel like they deserve it," the senior goalkeeper said . "I don't feel like they deserved to win. I know they won, but that's basically how I feel."
Wickham's post-game comments were likely rooted in frustration after he and the Midshipmen (1-2) seemed powerless to halt the No. 4 Tar Heels' comeback in the fourth quarter at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
After sophomore attackman Sam Jones scored off of a feed from sophomore attackman Tucker Hull to give Navy an 8-5 advantage with 4.2 seconds left in the third quarter, North Carolina (4-0) got goals from junior midfielder Davey Emala at the 12:12 mark of the fourth and senior attackman Thomas Wood at the 7:44 mark to trim the deficit to one.
Wickham made a pair of saves, but the Tar Heels knotted the score at eight when Emala dumped the ball to junior attackman Marcus Holman, who fired a blast from the left wing into the top right corner of the net with 4:33 remaining.
Sophomore R.G. Keenan won the ensuing faceoff to give possession back to North Carolina, and Wood took a pass from Holman (a game-high six points on two goals and four assists) and bounced a shot inside the left post to give the Tar Heels their first lead of the contest with 1:16 left.
Keenan won his 18th faceoff in 20 attempts, and North Carolina ran out the clock to cap its first win after trailing at halftime since May 9, 2009 when the Tar Heels rallied from a 8-6 deficit to UMBC to win, 15-13, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The offensive efficiency that the Midshipmen displayed in the first half (six goals on 17 shots) to enjoy a 6-3 lead at intermission dissipated in the second half as the team sought to run off chunks of time by holding the ball in the offensive zone without doing much of anything.
The offense took just one shot in the fourth quarter, while North Carolina took 15 in the final stanza.
That strategy suited the Tar Heels just fine, according to coach Joe Breschi.
"They had all the momentum, and I think for us, they were kind of playing into our hands a little bit," Breschi said. "… [T]hat's something that changed the whole flow because when they were attacking us, they were getting good opportunities and really putting pressure on us defensively. But I thought it settled us down when they slowed the tempo, and we've got to get used to some of those tactics as we go through the season."
Navy junior midfielder Bryce Dabbs, who led the team with three goals, acknowledged that the offense got too conservative.
"I think that we had a lot of shots that could have potentially come from the inside, but we just weren't hitting the cutters," he said. "We were playing a little timid in the second half."
The Midshipmen will get a week to lick their wounds before reigning Patriot League champion Bucknell visits for the conference opener for both teams. But there's no plan to use Saturday's showing as a moral victory.
"Yeah, Carolina's a good team, but we don't go into a game thinking, 'Oh, this is the No. 4 team in the country.' We're not going to play scared," Wickham said. "We went out there and we busted our butts the whole game. It stinks that it didn't work out for us."