The 18th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels men’s lacrosse team is fighting for its NCAA postseason life.
Following a 16-15 ACC Tournament semifinal win over the top-ranked Syracuse Orange on Friday, the defending NCAA champion sits at an even 7-7 and will face the sixth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-3) in the ACC title game to be played at Duke’s Koskinen Stadium on Sunday at noon.
The Tar Heels must win the ACC Championship in order to be eligible for an at-large bid into the 2017 NCAA Tournament. A league tournament title alone won’t guarantee them a playoff spot as there is no automatic bid for the ACC champion.
However, a win over the Fighting Irish would give the Tar Heels the required winning record and a strong RPI, two NCAA selection committee criteria considered for postseason play.
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There is no other alternative.
Both teams recently faced off on April 22 in South Bend, and the Irish claimed a 14-13 victory, making the Tar Heels’ road to the postseason a little longer and more treacherous.
North Carolina survived its semifinal challenge against the Orange, and now must dig down just as deep, or deeper, to pull out a win against the Irish.
Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan knows what to expect.
“We see them in the exact same situation we saw them in the other day,” he said.
“They had to win that game the other day, or this tournament. So, we saw them in a very physical game, a very demanding game. This is what the ACC is. You get two unbelievably competitive games, two really high-level games, two completely different types of games. All the teams are good - they’re talented and well coached.”
The NCAA MVP from a year ago and UNC’s leading scorer, attackmen Chris Cloutier’s scoring pace is rising and will be critical to giving the Tar Heels the chance to win.
He scored four goals against Notre Dame last week and followed that up with three against Syracuse on Friday.
His leadership on the offensive end has been and will be critical for the Tar Heels to return to the NCAA Tournament.
However, he doesn’t feel as though he’s carrying the load, but rather that his teammates are all rallying together to do so at the right time.
Luke Goldstock, Andy Matthews, and Timmy Kelly, along with William Perry, Justin Anderson, Michael Tagliaferri, and Tanner Cook have spread the wealth amongst UNC’s offensive corps.
“All those guys are contributing every night,” Cloutier said.
“It’s easy to lead guys like that who want to contribute, and follow and learn, and be seen as equals on the team - and we are. We’re all equals. We’re meshing well right now.”
Defensively, captain Austin Pifani and goalkeeper Brian Balkam anchor a unit that plays aggressively and will be keys to shutting down Notre Dame’s offensive weapons in Ryder Garnsey, Sergio Perkovic, Mikey Wynne, and Bryan Costabile.
According to Cloutier, the Tar Heels will continue to play with a 0-0 mentality.
“The offense has complete faith in the defense in making the stops and getting us the ball, and the defense has complete faith in the offense. That’s the mentality we have to play with every game.”
After beating Syracuse, Pifani stated, “At the end of the day, it’s just a lacrosse game - we were fighting for tomorrow – just one more game with our brothers.”
Heading into Sunday’s game, the Tar Heels will suit up for another battle, and play for one another.
As they always do.
“We see them in the exact same situation we saw them in the other day,” Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan said of the Tar Heels.
“They had to win that game the other day, or this tournament. So, we saw them in a very physical game, a very demanding game. This is what the ACC is. You get two unbelievably competitive games, two really high-level games, two completely different types of games. All the teams are good, they’re talented, and well coached.”
“It’s a pleasure to compete in this league,” Corrigan continued.
“You’re playing against great coaches, great opponents – everybody’s got the things that they do really well. They adjust game-to-game. You can’t just comeback and re-run the first game because they’ll kill you on stuff they saw. At the end of the year, you need to be able to play different ways. You may have a way that you most desire to play, but that may not be the game you find yourself in in the tournament, and you’ve gotta find a way to win the game you’re in. It might be a low-scoring game that you didn’t want, or a high-scoring game you didn’t want. The key is finding a way to win it.”