Maryland lacrosse head coach John Tillman talks about the end of the NCAA championship game in Philadelphia after the Terrapins lost to the North Carolina Tar Heels by a goal in overtime. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)
North Carolina overcame several major obstacles to topple No. 1 seed Maryland, 14-13, in overtime on Monday for the program's fifth NCAA Division I title and first since 1991.
The Tar Heels opened the season without 48.5 percent of its point production from 2015 with the graduation of attackmen Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey and midfielder Chad Tutton. Because of those losses, the team was voted to finish last in the Atlantic Coast Conference's five-team preseason poll.
North Carolina then had to rally from a 3-3 start and needed a seven-goal run in the fourth quarter to outlast Notre Dame, 17-15, on April 23 that even coach Joe Breschi admitted was the linchpin in the program earning one of the last at-large berths in the NCAA tournament.
But Breschi, a Baltimore native and Loyola Blakefield graduate, said the absence of expectations actually aided the team.
"I've got to tell you that pressure is a funny thing, and these guys had zero pressure," he said. "They were picked the lowest we've ever been picked in the eight years I've been there. And last in the ACC. And these guys were on a mission. It wasn't pretty early. … But they continued to trust in the system and get after it. We lost a lot of talent, but sometimes it's the chemistry and the leadership of the senior class that brings it all together. And if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be sitting here tonight."
The Tar Heels (12-6) set a Division I record for the most losses by a national champion and became the first unseeded team to capture the NCAA title. Sophomore attackman Chris Cloutier set a tournament record for goals with 19 and scored five goals – including the game-winner with 1 minute, 39 seconds left in overtime – against the Terps.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, Cloutier said he never doubted his team's chances.
"I was telling my friends earlier in the year that everyone on this team believed that we could absolutely do it this year," he said. "And getting here and being able to have the end of the season that we did is truly amazing."
North Carolina will graduate five senior contributors including starters Steve Pontrello (49 goals and 21 assists) and midfielder Patrick Kelly (27G, 11A). But Breschi said the returning players' optimism should remain high next season.
"I like the group coming back," he said. "I think they understand what it takes now. So I think you got them at that point."
1) Faceoffs. Junior Stephen Kelly had won 60 percent (36-of-60) of his draws and scooped up 20 ground balls in North Carolina's convincing wins against Notre Dame and Loyola Maryland. But the Lutherville resident and Calvert Hall graduate claimed just 34.8 percent (8-of-23) and four ground balls against Maryland freshman Austin Henningsen (63.3 percent on 19-of-30 and seven ground balls). Henningsen had gone just 30.3 percent (10-of-33) with three ground balls in victories over Syracuse and Brown.
"I couldn't be more proud of Austin Henningsen," Terps coach John Tillman said. "After the tough game on Saturday, to bounce back and do what he did says a lot about [volunteer assistant coach] Chris Mattes, but also the guys he works with every day to kind of get him ready for the big stage, just doing a great job against Stephen Kelly, who I think is awesome."
2) Matt Rambo. The junior attackman tied senior midfielder Henry West to lead Maryland in points with six on three goals and three assists, but Monday's final hinged on the team's inability to convert an extra-man opportunity to open overtime. Sophomore midfielder Connor Kelly had a chance, but his shot from the left wing was eaten up by North Carolina goalkeeper Brian Balkam. The redshirt sophomore, who made a game-best 13 saves, joked that he could not think of a better time to anchor his team than making a stop on man-down defense in overtime of a NCAA title game.
"It rotated quick," Balkam said. "Gave up a shot that I wanted to see. Lucky to make the save, clear the ball. And then my buddy Cooch [Cloutier], he was able to put it away and gave us the title."
3) Chris Cloutier. Cloutier broke Loyola Maryland attackman Eric Lusby's previous record of 17 goals in the 2012 NCAA tournament. What was mystifying for Maryland is that a defense that had allowed only High Point and Penn State to reach 10 goals earlier in the season surrendered 13 to Brown and 14 to North Carolina in a span of three days.
"I don't think it's one thing," Terps junior short-stick defensive midfielder Isaiah Davis-Allen said. "Brown's offense is high-powered. They have a lot of good weapons, and it's the same thing we saw. Pontrello and all those guys are awesome players. We didn't play how we wanted to, but I give credit to them. They executed on all fronts."