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Finishing

[Love the site, and I'm looking to add some lacrosse content if anyone is interested. Bit of a lengthy write-up of today's game against Maryland, where UNC upset the no. 1 Terrapins 11-8. Future posts probably won't be this long.]

If you haven’t been watching UNC lacrosse for the past few years, you’ve missed the collegiate game played at its highest level. You’ve missed a spectacular up-tempo approach to the sport, a (dare I say) Roy Williams-esque club which thrives on transition and confusion, serving as a needed antidote to the snore-inducing, five minute-per-possession style which has spread, like a virus, through the college game. You’ve missed tremendous offensive creativity, spearheaded by a succession of jitterbug attackmen whose explosiveness has sent the walls of top-flight defenses tumbling down. You’ve missed midfielders with unholy levels of athleticism wash over lacrosse fields in waves, drowning opponents with the relentlessness of water breaking through a dam. Recently, you’ve missed the emergence of a goalie and a defense that can and should anchor this team as they push for their first Final Four appearance in over twenty years.

Lucky you, you’ve also missed a series of skull-splitting headaches, a team unable to bridge the gap between potential and performance.

If you have been watching, then you’re intimately familiar with the UNC lacrosse team that handled the number one Terrapins today at Kenan Stadium (a ranking richly deserved after their righteous scalping of Syracuse and Duke). Last year, you saw them race out to a 9-4 halftime lead over Denver in the NCAA Quarterfinals. Earlier this season, you watched as they tore apart Notre Dame’s hive-mind defense on the way to an 8-3 advantage, and you witnessed them control possession and pace as they kept Duke at arm’s length to claim a 7-5 fourth quarter lead. Those squads, however, disappeared as the game clock inched toward 0:00. A team that clears the ball with ease suddenly can’t get it past midfield. Shooters who pick corners with expertise suddenly gift the opposing goalkeeper with easy saves. Guys that scrap and claw for loose balls in the second quarter are nowhere to be found come the fourth. Denver, Notre Dame and Duke all pulled out victories in the final minute or in overtime.

As Maryland pulled to within one (8-7) in the final minutes of the third, you could’ve forgiven a Tar Heel fan for getting that sinking feeling again. While team narratives in sports are largely bs, it seemed as if higher powers were determined to chisel in stone the Legend of UNC and the Blown Lead. Here it comes: the low-percentage shot, the confused defensive rotation, errors forgivable in the game’s first forty-five minutes which seem to doom this team in the last fifteen. But it never came. The first half Heels that dominated Denver, Notre Dame and Duke stayed all the way through the end, kicking into overdrive, putting distance between themselves and the Terps. Not even Bitter’s deciding goal (how do you even defend?) could distract them from finishing, as they took the clock in both hands and strangled it, not letting go until the corpse was filed and stowed away in the morgue (Simpson choosing to pass up a wide open net as time wound down, Pontrello whipping the ball forty feet in the air as the Heels approached the end of a thirty second shot clock; these are the little, beautiful plays they didn’t make last week against Duke).

Because team narratives are bs, this game by itself proves nothing. These Heels could win a national title. They could lose to a hungry Ivy League team in the first round. Concretely, however, this game keeps them alive for the ACC Tournament (beat Virginia and Syracuse and they’re in; beat only one, and then they don't control their own destiny) and is a big step toward getting a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, where, hopefully, they’ll earn that elusive Final Four berth. By then, maybe, fans watching the game will look forward to the fourth with confidence.

WHAT I LIKED:

DAT LENGTH. Pat Foster makes an almost comical contrast to Sankey and Bitter. While they move with the lightning speed necessitated by their diminutive statures, he has the awkward grace of a basketball big man. His first goal was a great rip (and a bad read by Maryland’s Amato, who had a rough day), but his second was all range, a Michael-Jordan-in-Space-Jam show of arm length that a) makes him a great complement to the short guys, and b) had me empathizing with the Maryland defender. As a former defenseman with a good deal of unwarranted armchair cockiness, I said to a friend that I might d-up on Foster, but no way would I take on Bitter or Sankey. After that second goal, I decided it best to avoid all three.

Faceoffs? Pshhh. Had you told me before the game that UNC would get out-ground balled AND smoked at the faceoff x (winning 7 of 23), I wouldn’t have bothered attending (and would have missed yet another opportunity to piss off all the golf-shirt sporting player parents with my vocal, half-informed commentary). Sixteen (sixteen? JEEEZ) Maryland turnovers helped lessen the possession imbalance, and UNC’s "hell yes, chaos!" approach to the game meant that they would capitalize time and again. My first thought on leaving the stadium was "I really don’t want to play Maryland again when they have their heads screwed on right," but then, if Kelly can recover from his injury and if Keenan gets healthier, faceoffs will (ideally) be a wash, and both teams will be playing on even footing. An awesomely scary thought.

Kieran Burke. How do you recover from a heartbreaking loss to Duke in which you played at an insane level? You crush Maryland’s dreams. Simple, really. Kind of upset I didn’t think of it. Burke finished with 12 saves.

WHAT I DIDN’T:

Faceoffs, uggghhhhh. The Syracuse approach to faceoffs is unsustainable for this team.

With time running down. UNC has, over the past few weeks, managed to possess the ball at the ends of several quarters, setting up several last shot opportunities (which, in theory, is great! Keep up the good work!). Yet their efforts to execute plays with time running down have yielded little. They inevitably begin with an iso from up top (or sometimes behind) which doesn’t draw any defenders, and they eventually end with Sankey or Bitter careening around GLE, looking for shots that aren’t there. For a team so creative in transition, the occasional stagnation in 6-on-6, especially coming out of timeouts, is frustrating.

Next up: @ Johns Hopkins, Saturday March 29, 2pm, ESPNU.

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