North Carolina pulls away in second half, beats Lehigh in NCAA tourney opener
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina overcame a slow start to race past 10th-ranked Lehigh 16-7 in the first round of the NCAA Men's Lacrosse tournament Saturday at Fetzer Field. Eleven different Tar Heels scored in the game as UNC rung up its largest margin of victory in an NCAA game since 1990 when current head coach Joe Breschi served as the senior captain for the Carolina team.
ACC champion North Carolina improved to 13-3 on the campaign, its most wins in a season since 2010 to advance to the NCAA quarterfinals for the third time in Breschi's five years as head coach, but first time in three years.
The Tar Heels finished the regular-season ranked No. 5 in both the USILA and Inside Lacrosse polls and entered the game as the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Mountain Hawks led 2-1 after the first quarter but Carolina scored the opening five goals of the second quarter and never looked back. Carolina maintained at least a two-goal lead for the last 40:11 of the game. The Mountain Hawks stuck around until late in the third quarter but UNC outscored the Patriot League champions 7-1 during the last 15:56 of the match to pull away. Lehigh finished its season with a record of 12-5.
Marcus Holman led Carolina with a goal and four assists while Jimmy Bitter and Chad Tutton each had three goals and an assist. Steve Pontrello added a pair of goals as Carolina piled on the goals against a Lehigh defense which came into the match allowing only 7.44 goals per game, tied for second in the nation. Other goal scorers for UNC were Greg McBride, Walker Chafee, R.G. Keenan, Davey Emala, Ryan Creighton, Spencer Parks and Patrick Kelly. Joey Sankey had a trio of assists for Carolina while Jake Matthai and Greg McBride also had helpers.
The five points for Holman increased his career school record in that category to 213. He has posted three or more assists in a game seven times this year. Holman has 79 points this season, the second most in Carolina history. He needs two points to tie Bruce Ledwith's school record of 81 in a season set in 1973. Holman also increased his season assist total to 43, the third most in a season in UNC history and four short of the school mark.
Holman also ran his consecutive games streak with at least one point to 31 in a row. Bitter now has scored goals in 10 consecutive games and has points in 26 games in a row. Sankey's point streak improved to 20 games in a row and Tutton has now scored at least one goal in 12 consecutive games and in 24 of the past 25 contests.
Bitter and Tutton each recorded their eighth career hat tricks. Tutton has hat tricks in three consecutive games and four of the past five.
Lehigh was led in scoring by David DiMaria, who figured in five of its seven goals. DiMaria scored two and assisted on three. Patrick Corbett had two goals for the Mountain Hawks but the Tar Heels' defense forced 15 turnovers and limited Lehigh to single digits in scoring for the first time in seven games.
The Tar Heels outshot the Mountain Hawks in every period, ending with a 53-30 edge. UNC also led in ground balls 38-25. Carolina continued its season-long trend of taking care of the ball, committing only nine turnovers while the Mountain Hawks had 15.
Taking better care of the ball was a big key for the game. UNC generated 33 shots on goal and committed only nine turnovers. When the Mountain Hawks came to Fetzer Field last year and beat Carolina 9-8 in the regular season, the Heels had 19 turnovers and only 16 shots on goal.
Another big factor in UNC's win was Keenan's play in the faceoff circle as he won 15 of 22 faceoffs and scooped up a game-high eight ground balls. Keenan won 10 of 13 draws in the first half, helping the Tar Heels keep a possession advantage until they started to solve Lehigh goalkeeper Matt Poillon, who had nine first-half saves, including five in the first quarter as Lehigh started out with a 2-1 lead after the opening 15 minutes.
Poillon finished with 17 saves while Kieran Burke went the whole way for UNC, making eight saves. Both teams cleared the ball effectively with Lehigh going 16-for-18 and UNC finishing 13 of 14.
The game started slow for the Heels as Lehigh led 2-1 after the opening period. But the Tar Heels' transition game began to click in the opening minutes of the second stanza and the game turned on that. UNC rang up five goals in a span of just 3:46 as UNC seized a 6-2 lead at 10:11 of the period. It was fast-break and unsettled goals, which set the table for UNC in that run. Holman scored off an assist by McBride on a break at 13:57 to tie the game at 2. Creighton scored in transition from Tutton at 12:33 to give the Heels a lead they never relinquished. Emala then scored on a rebound and McBride scored from Sankey after a faceoff win. With a flag down on the field for a delayed penalty against the Mountain Hawks, Parks finished off an assist by Bitter and UNC was up 6-2 with 10:11 left before halftime. The Mountain Hawks answered with a pair of goals but Chafee scored an extra-man goal with 1:29 left in the half to put the Heels up by three at the break.
The Mountain Hawks scored an extra-man goal nine seconds into the second half but Carolina again answered the call. Pontrello lasered one past Poillon a little more than a minute later to restore a three-goal lead and then the Tar Heels got a key goal at 6:56 as Carolina won a battle for a ground ball near midfield and with everyone in scramble mode, Sankey fed Tutton for a brilliant goal. Lehigh got one back but Carolina regained momentum with Bitter's second tally of the game off an assist by Sankey with 56 seconds left before the end of the period.
The fourth quarter was all Carolina. Keenan set the table with a faceoff win and a goal five seconds into the period. It was the fifth goal of the season and his third in the past two games. Pontrello matched his career high for goals in a game at 9:53, assisted by fellow Jake Matthai. Lehigh cut the UNC lead back to five goals on a fast break tally by Klay Heston at 8:42 but the Heels responded with a man-up goal by Tutton, a timer-on goal by Bitter and goals by Kelly and Tutton, all in the last 5:23.