CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Fourth-ranked North Carolina got eight points from Marcus Holman and career high goal totals from Jimmy Bitter, Joey Sankey and Ryan Creighton as it won its men's lacrosse opener 16-8 over Air Force Friday night. The game drew 1,714 fans on a chilly night at Fetzer Field in the season opener for both teams.
The game featured a head coaching matchup of a pair of former Tar Heel players - Joe Breschi, '90, for the Tar Heels and Eric Seremet, '92, for the Falcons. This marked the first time the Tar Heels had hosted the Falcons at Fetzer Field since April 13, 2005.
It was a close game throughout the first half before the Tar Heels got some separation from the Falcons early in the third quarter. UNC outscored the Falcons 8-2 in the second half as the Tar Heel defense clamped down, freshman goalkeeper Kieran Burke made 10 second-half saves and UNC won nine of 12 second-half face-offs.
Offensively, Holman had eight points overall, just two short of his career high. His six assists were the most by a Tar Heel in a game since Spencer Deering had six helpers against Delaware on April 12, 1997. Jimmy Bitter's five goals were a career best, exceeding the four he had on April 14, 2012 against Hofstra. Defensive midfielder Ryan Creighton had a career-high three goals and on just three shots and he scooped up three ground balls as well. Joe Sankey's three goals matched his career best, the fifth time he has had a hat trick in his two years at UNC.
Tommy McKee led the Falcons with his own hat trick to go with two-goal efforts by Erik Smith and Mike Crampton.
It was a tale of two halves as Air Force stayed with Carolina throughout the first 30 minutes. In the second half, UNC freshman goalkeeper Kieran Burke stepped up his game, making 10 saves and allowing only two goals after allowing six first-half goals on the Falcons' seven shots on goal. Burke also managed the clearing game well as UNC failed only twice in 24 attempts and he led Carolina with seven ground balls.
Conversely, Falcon netminder Austin Fox kept the Tar Heels at bay in the first half with eight of his 11 saves. Most of his first-half stops were highlight reel worthy as the Tar Heels were able to find holes in Air Force's zone for high percentage shots only to be turned away. In the second half, the Tar Heels' shot placement proved to be better as they scored on eight of their 11 shots on goal post intermission.
Both R.G. Keenan and Frankie Kelly turned in yeoman-like work at the X for the Heels. Keenan won 11 of 18 draws and shared the team lead in ground balls with Burke at seven. Kelly was six for nine and scooped up five ground balls as UNC won 17 of 27 overall.
Carolina got early goals from Creighton and Sankey before the Falcons ran off three markers in a three-minute span to go up 3-2 with 2:19 left in the opening period. After a slashing call on R.G. Keenan, UNC killed off the penalty and Bitter scored the first of his five goals while the Tar Heels were a man down with 36 seconds left in the quarter.
The teams traded goals at the beginning of the second quarter before Bitter was assisted by Holman with 3:37 left before halftime for a 6-5 lead that the Heels would never relinquish. Thirteen seconds before intermission, Mike Crampton scored on a crafty shot from distance to cut the UNC lead to one but a face-off win followed by a classic Bitter dodge to the goal resulted in his third goal of the half and an 8-6 lead one second before the half.
The Heels extended the lead to 10-6 on Bitter and Creighton goals early in the third. McKee answered for Air Force off a face-off win at 10:34 but Holman scored and then assisted Sankey before the end of the frame so the Heels went to the fourth up 12-7.
The first tally of the final 15 minutes was a man-up goal by Tommy McKee with 10:50 to play. The Heels then blew the game open with three goals in 1:24 - Bitter, a first career goal by Jake Matthai and Creighton - and it was 15-8 UNC at 8:28 of the fourth period. Carolina capped the scoring with freshman Steve Pontrello's first career score at 1:24 of the final period.
The Tar Heels outshot the Falcons 49-34 with both teams making 11 saves. Air Force made 14 turnovers, eight forced by UNC, while the Tar Heels made 13 miscues with nine caused by the Falcons. The ground ball battle favored Carolina 44-30, including a decided 22-10 edge after the half.The Falcons will stay on the East Coast and meet first-year program High Point Sunday. Carolina has eight days to prepare for defending Colonial Athletic Association champion Massachusetts, which went undefeated in the regular season a year ago. That matchup will take place in Kennesaw, Ga., next Saturday at 1 p.m. in the third annual Southern Showdown.