CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's long wait for another ACC men's lacrosse championship ended Sunday afternoon at Kenan Stadium. Packing a lethal offensive punch for the second straight tournament game and holding at least a two-goal lead throughout the final 32 minutes, the second-seeded Tar Heels turned back fourth-seeded Virginia,16-13, in the title game of the Atlantic Coast Conference Men's Lacrosse Championship.
North Carolina won its 12th ACC title overall in the sport and its first in 17 years, winning their ninth game in a row this season. The Tar Heels' winning streak is the second longest since 1993 and UNC will look to extend it when the NCAA Tournament opens May 11.
In the process, North Carolina's players presented their head coach, Joe Breschi, with his 150th career win. A partisan Carolina crowd was present at Kenan Stadium to celebrate UNC's first title in nearly two decades, a victory which improved Breschi to 58-24 in his five years at Carolina and 150-87 overall in 17 years at Ohio State and UNC.
Led by Marcus Holman's tournament Most Valuable Player performance, Davey Emala's UNC career-high goal total, Chad Tutton's second straight hat trick and Kieran Burke's 17 saves, the Tar Heels won their ninth straight game and finished the regular season at 12-3. Virginia's season came to an end as the Cavaliers fell to 7-8 on the season.
Holman did not score a goal in the championship game, settling for five assists instead. His school record 29-game goal-scoring streak came to an end in the process but it is likely the senior attackman from Baltimore, Md., cares little about the end of that streak. His five points against the Cavaliers lifted his career total to 207 and broke the school record of 204 set 40 years ago by Bruce Ledwith (1970-73). His five assists give him 87 in his career, the third highest total in North Carolina lore.
Holman was one of five UNC players on the All-Tournament team as he was joined by midfielder Chad Tutton, who had tricks in both tournament matches, midfielder R.G. Keenan, who was tremendous at the X and on ground balls, midfielder Davey Emala, who led Carolina with a quartet of goals, and freshman goalkeeper Kieran Burke, who had 17 saves, the second highest total of his inaugural campaign as a Tar Heel.
A crowd of 4,001 fans saw the Tar Heels (12-3) claim their 12th ACC title overall and their eighth since the league began determining its champion via a tournament format in 1989. But North Carolina's last ACC championship prior to Sunday had come in 1996 when UNC's sole captain Marcus Holman was a mere four years old.
"We've had five years of working hard, recruiting hard and trying to bring in the best people," said Joe Breschi, the Tar Heels' head coach since 2009. "You hear (our players) talking about being together and how tight they are. They believe in each other and they continue to battle for one another, and that's what makes them great."
Few people expected this scenario for the Tar Heels on the evening of March 13 when the Tar Heels lost to Duke 11-8 on Fetzer Field, dropping their 16th game to the Blue Devils in the last 17 meetings between the two teams. Carolina was 3-3 at that point but won seven straight heading into the ACC Tournament before beating a pair of big rivals, Duke (18-17) and Virginia (16-13), in the span of three days to win the title.
North Carolina, which enhanced its chances of receiving the No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, weathered a determined effort by the Cavaliers (7-8), who needed a victory on Sunday to earn NCAA eligibility. Matt White hammered home an ACC Championship single-game record-tying seven goals - including five of Virginia's six scores in the second half - and Nick O'Reilly set the Championship single-game record for assists with seven. Mark Cockerton had a hat trick for the Cavaliers to go along with two assists but only three other Wahoos scored goals.
But Carolina's balance helped it carry the day. The Tar Heels found a way to win without Marcus Holman or Joey Sankey scoring goals. The two attackmen did combine to assist on eight of Carolina's 16 goals.
Davey Emala led the Tar Heels with four goals and an assist. That equaled the most goals in a game for the Georgetown transfer since he suited up in a UNC uniform in 2012. The last time he had scored four goals was in his opening game in a Tar Heel uniform against Penn State on February 11, 2012. It was the 13th career hat trick for Emala and fourth this season. Tutton had three goals, earning his second hat trick of the tournament, and pushing his career hat trick total to seven.
Jimmy Bitter, Steve Pontrello and R.G. Keenan each scored twice for Carolina. The two goals for Pontrello matched his career high set earlier this year at Notre Dame and Keenan set a career high with his two goals. Keenan won 18 of 32 face-offs in the match and had a game-high 11 ground balls, just one shy of his career high total in a match. It was the ninth time in his career that Keenan has won 18 or more face-offs in a game.
"We really played about as well as we can play this weekend," Breschi said. "This is a confident bunch. I heard Marcus talking (to the reporters) about always being the underdog, and we kind of like that. We've been underdogs since I arrived, for sure. But we don't listen to any of that."
The Tar Heels fell behind 5-3 in the first quarter before a 6-2 second-quarter scoring run had them up 10-7 at the half.
From there on the Tar Heels, who set an ACC Championship scoring record with 34 goals in two games, remained a step ahead most of the way and kept their lead at two or more the rest of the way.
Carolina's 34 goals in two games broke the previous tournament scoring record which was 31 goals by Duke in 1995 and 2009 and Carolina in 1996.
The first half that began in a steady light rain and ended with North Carolina in front by a 10-7 score. The teams then matched each other with six goals in the second half.
Holman became the Tar Heels' all-time leading scorer when he assisted on back-to-back by goals by Emala in the closing minutes of the second period. Holman's second connection with Emala gave him 205 career points, surpassing the previous school record of 204 set by Bruce Ledwith (1970-73). He finished the game with 207 points.
Virginia's O'Reilly handed out four assists in the first quarter alone and added a second-period goal to end the first half with five points. Emala's hat trick and one assist paced North Carolina's scoring in the opening half and then his goal with 5:38 to play cemented the victory.
Two nights after North Carolina and Duke set an ACC Championship record with a combined 35 goals, the Tar Heels and Cavaliers displayed similar scoring prowess in opening minutes Sunday. The teams combined for four goals in the first 3:01 of the game, and the score was knotted 3-3 at the 8:48 mark of the first quarter before the floodgates somewhat closed.
The Tar Heels controlled 13 of 19 first-half face-offs and ended up with an 18-14 edge for the game. North Carolina also led in ground balls, 41-37. Virginia outshot the Tar Heels 46-42.
Goalie play was a big difference as freshman Kieran Burke made 17 saves while allowing 13 goals. In two games against Virginia this year Burke's save percentage is .667 (40 saves, 20 goals allowed). Rhody Heller finished with 11 saves for Carolina.
The Tar Heels were brilliant on extra-man as they were 3-for-4 on the day while the UNC man-down unit was stellar, denying Virginia on all five of its chances.
"I think Carolina has evolved defensively," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "The kid in the cage (Burke) had kind of solidified that position for them. I thought we really had a shot at it when we closed it to two goals there late in the third quarter, early in the fourth. But Carolina was just a little slicker in the unsettled game, converted more easily, and came out on top."
Holman was joined on the All-Tournament team by Tar Heel teammates Davey Emala, Chad Tutton, Kieran Burke and R.G. Keenan. White, O'Relly, Mark Cockerton and Harry Prevas represented Virginia on the squad, and Jordan Wolf and Brendan Fowler were named from Duke.
In addition to Sunday's single-game goals record, White set an ACC Championship record for total goals scored (10) and total points (13). O'Neill's nine assists in two games were also a tournament record.
Carolina opened the scoring on a goal by Ryan Creighton with 13:13 left in the first quarter as the Tar Heels capitalized on a Virginia turnover. Holman assisted on the goal. Cockerton then scored back-to-back goals for UVA, both assisted by O'Reilly, to put the Hoos up 2-1 at 12:07. Eight seconds later, the Heels tied the game as Mark McNeill scooped up a ground ball off a face-off and fed Jimmy Bitter for the score. Bitter scored again exactly two minutes later off a Sankey assist to put the Heels up 3-2 but the lead was short-lived.
Goals by Greg Coholan, Matt White and Ryan Tucker gave the Cavs a 5-3 lead with 30 seconds left in the opening period. The Tar Heels won the ensuing face-off and had three shots in quick succession. Tutton had the second shot in the sequence and it was knocked down by Heller but Emala scooped up the ground ball and scored with two seconds left in the quarter to give the Tar Heels momentum going into the second quarter.
The Tar Heels continued their goal-scoring run with an unassisted goal by Steve Pontrello at 12:28 of the second quarter followed by a tally 38 seconds later by Pat Foster assisted by Sankey. Heller had saved a shot by T.J. Kemp but Sankey stripped Blake Riley of the ball and fed Foster on the quick restart for the goal.
Matt White responded with the second of his seven goals to tie the game at 10:36 but the Heels retook the lead 33 seconds later as Spencer Parks scored a man-up goal from the left wing, assisted by Emala. After that scoring flurry early in the second quarter, neither team tallied for nearly five minute before Nick O'Reilly tied the game for the last time with an unassisted goal 5:25 before halftime.
Carolina then seized control of the game in the final five minutes of the first half. It was Jimmy Bitter who made the key play to help produce the goal that gave the Tar Heels the lead for good. After Heller saved a shot by Bitter, the UNC sophomore attackman from Stowe, Vt., stripped the Virginia goalie on the clearing attempt, scooped up the ground ball and fed Holman who passed off to Emala for the goal that put UNC up 8-7 at 4:07.
Exactly two minutes later it was Emala who finished off his first-half hat trick, scoring on the man-up off an assist by Holman. After Kieran Burke made a save on a shot by Cockerton with 43 seconds left in the half, UNC cleared the ball and called timeout. With four seconds left in the first half, Tutton scored off an assist by Holman. It was the second straight quarter in which UNC scored in the closing seconds of the period and Holman's assist was the point which allowed him to set the school career record at 205.
Carolina came out strong in the second half and quickly achieved its biggest lead of the game at five goals less than three minutes into the period. Pontrello scored his second goal of the game with 12:48 left and then Keenan won the ensuing face-off and scored five seconds later for a 12-7 Carolina lead. Virginia answered that goal just 17 seconds after that as White scored his third goal of the game assisted by Cockerton.
Carolina struck again on the extra-man with Tutton earning his second goal, assisted by Holman at 10:40 after Matt White was sent off for pushing. Virginia scored the next two goals, both by White. The first goal came off a failed clear by the Tar Heels as Nick O'Reilly intercepted a pass by Kieran McDonald. White then scored again at 7:39 before Tutton responded for UNC with 6:32 left in the period. White scored for Virginia with 3:48 left to cut the Carolina lead back to three goals.
Virginia started the fourth quarter on the extra-man for 42 seconds but Burke saved a shot by Cokerton at 14:29. Virginia got another EMO opportunity at 11:36 after a slashing call on Jake Bailey but Burke saved a Greg Coholan shot 31 seconds later.
Eventually the Cavs broke through as White's goal at 8:45, assisted by O'Reilly, pulled Virginia within two goals. Virginia won the next face-off but Burke, who had 12 second-half saves, stopped Charlie Streep with 7:39 left to play.
UNC cleared the ball and had a long possession that ended when Sankey's nifty assist to Emala made it 15-12 Carolina with 5:38 to play. Keenan then scored his second goal of the game five seconds later to ice things for the Tar Heels.
Holman's five assists give him 74 points on the season and 38 assists on the campaign. His 74 points equal the total he had as a junior last season and matches the third most in a single season in UNC history. His 38 assists are the fourth most in a season in Carolina history. Sankey's three assists give him 50 points for the season, the 30th time a UNC player has had 50 or more points in a season.
UNC has now scored 54 goals in the last three games. That is the most in any three-game span by the Tar Heels since April 8-16, 1997 when the Tar Heels scored 59 goals over three matches.
R.G. Keenan's 11 ground balls moved him past Joey Seivold and into third place in career ground balls with 312.Carolina improved to 51-8 in Coach Joe Breschi's coaching tenure when it scores 10 or more goals in a game.