COLUMBUS, OHIO — The North Carolina men's lacrosse team earned its first NCAA tournament semifinal berth in 23 years with a squad hardly anyone expected such a journey from.
The unseeded Tar Heels beat No. 3 seed Notre Dame at its own game, utilizing a stifling defense to secure a 13-9 victory in a quarterfinal at Ohio Stadium here Sunday afternoon.
North Carolina improved to 10-6 and joined top-seeded Maryland (16-2) and No. 5 seed Brown (16-2) in Saturday's semifinal round at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The Tar Heels will meet the winner of the second quarterfinal here between Towson (16-2) and No. 7 seed Loyola Maryland (13-3).
North Carolina – which had last secured a spot in the semifinals in 1993, also the last time the program advanced to the title game – snapped an 0-8 skid in the quarterfinals. This year's team had been described by observers as one in rebuilding mode, but that's not how the players viewed their chances.
Coach Joe Breschi, a Baltimore native and Loyola Blakefield graduate, expressed joy for his players, especially the seniors.
"There weren't a lot of believers out there," he said. "The people who did believe, they know who they are, and those who didn't give us a shot know who they are. I'm just so proud of these guys sticking together the entire season."
The Tar Heels had ended the regular season by capturing the Atlantic Coast Conference crown, but fell to Syracuse in the league tournament's semifinals. Still, they have now evicted two seeded opponents from the NCAA postseason in No. 6 seed Marquette (10-9 on May 14) and now the Fighting Irish.
And North Carolina swept its ACC rival, rallying from a 15-10 deficit in the fourth quarter to pull off a 17-15 victory on April 23.
The Tar Heels overcame years of disappointment thanks to a strong defensive effort. Senior long-stick midfielder Evan Connell (Calvert Hall) shut out junior midfielder Sergio Perkovic despite taking a game-high 14 shots, and junior defenseman Austin Pifani limited senior attackman Matt Kavanagh to zero assists and one goal on five attempts through the first three quarters before he added a second tally late in the fourth.
Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Brian Balkam made a game-best 14 saves while anchoring a North Carolina unit that kept the Fighting Irish off the scoreboard for 28 minutes, 27 seconds spanning the first three quarters.
"I'd say it was a full-team effort," said senior midfielder Jake Matthai (Gilman), who posted two caused turnovers and two ground balls. "We held them to three goals in three quarters. I don't think we've done that to single team this year. That was our best game defensively. Now it wasn't our best fourth quarter, but as a whole defensively, we're playing about as good as we ever have. We're communicating about as good as we ever have. We're all on the same page, and when we do that, good things happen."
During Notre Dame's drought, the Tar Heels rattled off eight consecutive goals to turn a 2-2 tie with 19 seconds left in the first period into a 10-2 advantage with 4:31 left in the third. Senior Steve Pontrello finished with four goals and two assists, and sophomore attackman Chris Cloutier added three goals and three assists under offensive coordinator Dave Metzbower's direction.
"We just wanted to share the ball and have great spacing," Pontrello said. "We knew we could get good looks from it. They're a very good defense, but we just listened to Coach Metzbower, sharing the ball, and making that extra pass, and guys were getting goals from everywhere. We just stayed the course."
Sophomore attackman Mikey Wynne (St. Paul's) paced the Fighting Irish with four goals on five attempts, and freshman attackman Ryder Garnsey chipped in one goal and one assist.
Those contributions weren't enough to prevent Notre Dame (11-4) from being bounced in the quarterfinals for third time in the last six years.
The victory was an emotional one for North Carolina's Breschi, who returned to Columbus where he began his coaching career in 1998 before leaving Ohio State after the 2008 campaign. His son Michael died in a car accident in 2004 when he was three years old, and Breschi and the Tar Heels scrimmage the Buckeyes every fall in Baltimore to raise money for a scholarship fund in Michael Breschi's memory.
"I went to the cemetery to visit my son, and it was a great moment I wanted to share with our team because that's who we are, we share everything," Breschi said as his voice welled with emotion. "This morning, they talked about [how] we're a pretty special group when we play for somebody else, and they were playing for Mike and my family today. [Senior midfielder] Patrick Kelly did a wonderful job expressing that. It's been a very emotional weekend to say the least, and it's going to be a lot of smiles on the way home."