PHILADELPHIA — What was supposed to be a storybook ending turned into a repeat nightmare for the top-seeded Maryland men's lacrosse team on Monday.
Unable to protect a two-goal lead in the final four minutes and convert an extra-man opportunity to open overtime, the Terps could only watch helplessly as Chris Cloutier's goal on a man-up chance with 1 minute, 39 seconds left in overtime propelled unseeded North Carolina to a 14-13 win and the program's first NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship since 1991.
With Maryland senior long-stick midfielder Mike McCarney serving a one-minute penalty for cross-checking with 2:11 left in the extra session, Cloutier, a sophomore attackman, accepted a pass from redshirt junior midfielder Michael Tagliaferri and flicked an off-hip shot from the high slot past redshirt senior goalkeeper Kyle Bernlohr to set off a raucous celebration among the Tar Heels contingent before an announced 26,749 here at Lincoln Financial Field.
While North Carolina — which has a solid Baltimore connection in, among others, coach Joe Breschi (Loyola Blakefield), senior midfielder Patrick Kelly (Calvert Hall), senior short-stick defensive midfielder Jake Matthai (Gilman), and junior faceoff specialist Stephen Kelly (Calvert Hall) — celebrated on one end of the field, a few Terps players slammed their equipment to the turf. Others crouched and held their heads in their hands at the golden opportunity they had failed to capitalize on.
Maryland fell to 17-3 and suffered its first loss in 17 contests and first since a 9-4 setback to Notre Dame on March 5. The program's lack of success in NCAA title games has dipped to 0-9 since the 1975 squad captured that championship.
"The closer you get, the harder it is when you lose," said coach John Tillman, who is now 0-4 in championship finals during his six-year tenure with the Terps. "But sometimes you have to step back. I have so many friends that coached, and they don't get this far, and they felt this, too, and every team always feels this way. So you have a lot of mixed emotions with that. It just keeps going back to our players, especially our seniors knowing that this was the last game for them and just wanting to see them smile so badly and just wanting to see them happy right now."
The pain of this loss stung deeply. Tillman, who has been a master at masking his emotions, could not hold back the tears during his post-game conference. Seniors like midfielders Henry West (two goals and four assists) and Bryan Cole (zero goals on three shots), defenseman Matt Dunn (three ground balls), long-stick midfielder Greg Danseglio (four ground balls) and Bernlohr (nine saves) were not brought to the conference room.
Junior attackman Dylan Maltz and junior short-stick defensive midfielder Isaiah Davis-Allen tried to describe their feelings.
"When you lose, it's a tough one," said Maltz, who registered two goals and one assist. "Those seniors do so much for you throughout the year, and you build such good bonds with them throughout the season and the fall. And just to see us not come out on top, we're all sad, and just to see the seniors especially, it's the worst feeling you can imagine."
Said Davis-Allen, who collected three ground balls: "It was just a back-and-forth battle all the way through the third and fourth and obviously, it ended up being that we lost in overtime. I would say we went down early and battled back strong. We couldn't pull it out toward the end."
Maryland got off to an extremely slow start, giving up four goals in the first 4 minutes, 10 seconds. But the team went on a 4-0 burst over a 5:32 span to get back into the game.
For the remainder of the game, neither side enjoyed more than a two-goal advantage — the last of which occurred with 7:49 left in regulation after junior attackman Matt Rambo's cross-crease pass was one-timed into the net by sophomore midfielder Connor Kelly for his fourth tally of the day and a 13-11 Terps lead.
North Carolina halved the deficit with 3:53 remaining when junior attackman Luke Goldstock converted a feed from senior midfielder Patrick Kelly on an extra-man opportunity created when West was cited for a one-minute slashing penalty.
Then 31 seconds later, Patrick Kelly took Danseglio down the left alley and deposited a shot to the lower right corner to knot the score at 13-13.
With less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Maryland junior attackman Colin Heacock had the ball on the left crease. But the Catonsville resident and Boys' Latin graduate, who posted two goals and two assists, rang a shot off the crossbar.
Goldstock was flagged for a one-minute call for unsportsmanlike conduct with 3.9 seconds left in regulation, and the Terps opened overtime with an extra-man opportunity.
But Connor Kelly's shot from the left wing was blocked by redshirt sophomore goalie Brian Balkam, setting up Cloutier's game-winning goal.
The Tar Heels finished the year with a 12-6 record buoyed by four consecutive wins against seeded opponents in No. 6 Marquette, No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 7 Loyola Maryland and now Maryland. North Carolina became the first unseeded team in seven attempts to win the title.
Cloutier, who broke Eric Lusby of Loyola's NCAA tournament record of 17 goals in 2012 with 19 goals during this postseason march, paced the team with five goals. Goldstock scored four times, and Balkam made a game-high 13 saves.
The Tar Heels team that claimed the 1991 title was honored during halftime of Monday's game for the 25th anniversary of their achievement. Coach Joe Breschi, who was an assistant on the 1991 team, credited the current squad with overcoming a 3-3 start and expectations that included a last-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason poll.
"It was all about heart, hustle and desire, and these guys have never quit," said Breschi, a Baltimore native. "Their backs were against the wall often, and they kept battling to the end, and they believed in each other. It was just fun to watch."