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UNC Mens’ Lacrosse: Johns Hopkins 13, Tar Heels 5

The Blue Jays outclass the Tar Heels in a clash of lacrosse elites.

NCAA Lacrosse: National Championship-North Carolina vs Maryland Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re ever looking to find a good example of how numbers can lie, you could do worse than a lacrosse box score. On paper, the #3 Tar Heels (3-1) played a very close game against #4 Johns Hopkins (4-0):

UNC vs. Johns Hopkins

STATISTIC North Carolina Johns Hopkins
STATISTIC North Carolina Johns Hopkins
Shots 39 37
Shots on Goal 21 24
Faceoffs Won 14 7
Ground Balls 30 29
Turnovers 13 10

On Fetzer Field, the game was not nearly so close.

The reason for the discrepancy is something that no ordinary statistic is very good at measuring in lacrosse, and that’s team defense. Yes, Hopkins goalie (and Michigan transfer) Gerald Logan recorded an otherworldly 16 saves, but as any goalie will tell you, a number like that does not belong solely to the goaltender (there go those lying numbers again). From beginning to end, the Blue Jays defense effectively locked down the Tar Heels’ key offensive players, holding Luke Goldstock scoreless and limiting last year’s NCAA tournament MVP Chris Cloutier to two goals.

Yes, Logan made big plays, but most of the afternoon he was getting to face shots that his defense wanted UNC taking, giving him consistently excellent looks at the ball. UNC’s dodge-driven offense had no answers for Hopkins’ on-ball defense and its ability to recover quickly on the few occasions when a Tar Heel began to threaten. If there’s a statistic in this game that tells something like the true story of this game, it’s this: UNC failed to record an assist on any of its five goals.

Much of the day the Tar Heel offense was reduced to one-on-one plays like the faceoff-to-goal one-man fast break Stephen Kelly scored on to open the 4th quarter. Kelly’s goal was a highlight reel play that provided the last gasp of hope for the Tar Heels, cutting the Hopkins lead to 8-4. Highlight reels, however, do not an offense make, and on a perfect Chapel Hill afternoon, Johns Hopkins never let the vaunted Tar Heels offense get going.

By contrast, the Tar Heel defense was too often disorganized and failed to consistently adjust to Hopkins’ movement, resulting in Blue Jays repeatedly getting excellent looks on the crease. For a half, Tar Heel goaltender Brian Balkam made enough dramatic saves to limit the damage and keep UNC in contention, but as the pattern continued into the second half, Hopkins began to have its way offensively, led by midfielder John Crawley, who finished with four goals on six shots. Fellow middie Joel Tinney added two goals and two assists, and the Jays ended up with eight assists on its 13 goals.

Although both teams struggled with footing and turnovers on the day, the gap between the two teams defensively made the three-turnover advantage Hopkins finished with feel much larger than it was. Quite simply, when the Blue Jays turned the ball over, their defense more often than not backed them up, buying Hopkins room for error that the Tar Heels never had. By contrast, every UNC turnover had the feeling of disaster about it.

No one who watched last year’s championship run will despair over a bad game in February against a top 5 opponent (last February included a 10-5 home loss to Hofstra). That said, the Tar Heels head on the road to take on #1 Denver in Colorado next weekend and must show significant improvement to avoid dropping both of its marquee non-conference games.

Last season’s win over Hopkins was one of the major factors that allowed the Tar Heels to squeak into the NCAA tournament and become the first unseeded team to win the NCAA title. Lose to Denver, and UNC will not have a similar card to play, making the pressure to excel in ACC play (all five ACC lacrosse teams are ranked, and four are in the top 10) enormous.