North Carolina beats Virginia 16-13 to win first ACC tourney title in 17 years
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina’s long wait ended Sunday afternoon at Kenan Stadium. Packing a lethal offensive punch for the second consecutive 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.
In the process, North Carolina’s players presented their head coach, Joe Breschi, his 150th career win. A partisan Carolina crowd was present at Kenan Stadium to celebrate UNC’s first title in nearly two decades.
Led by Marcus Holman’s tournament MVP performance, Davey Emala’s UNC career-high goal total of four, Chad Tutton’s second consecutive hat trick and Kieran Burke’s 17 saves, the Tar Heels won their ninth game in a row.
Holman did not score a goal in the championship game, settling for five assists. His school-record, 29-game, goal-scoring streak came to an end but his five points against the Cavaliers lifted his career total to 207 and broke the school mark of 204 set 40 years ago by Bruce Ledwith (1970-73).
Holman was one of five UNC players on the all-tournament team as he was joined by Chad Tutton, who had tricks in both tournament matches, R.G. Keenan, Emala and Burke.
A crowd of 4,001 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 Marcus Holman was 4 years old.
“We’ve had five years of working hard, recruiting and trying to bring in the best people,” Breschi said. “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.”
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 in the second half -- and Nick O’Reilly set the championship single-game record for assists with seven.
But Carolina’s balance helped it carry the day. 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. It was the 13th career hat trick for Emala. Tutton had three goals, earning his second hat trick of the tournament, and pushing his career total to seven. Jimmy Bitter, Steve Pontrello and Keenan each scored twice for Carolina. The two goals for Pontrello matched his career high and Keenan set a career high with his two goals. Keenan won 18 of 32 faceoffs in the match and had a game-high 11 ground balls, just one shy of his career-high total in a match.
UNC also got goals from Pat Foster, Spencer Parks and Ryan Creighton. Joe Sankey had three assists for Carolina.
“We really played about as well as we can play this weekend,” Breschi said. “This is a confident bunch. I heard Marcus talking [to 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. The previous tournament scoring record was 31 goals by Duke in 1995 and '09 and Carolina in '96.
Holman became the Tar Heels’ all-time leading scorer when he assisted on back-to-back 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.
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 period.
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 at 3 at the 8:48 mark of the first quarter before the floodgates somewhat closed.
The Tar Heels controlled 13 of 19 first-half faceoffs 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 Burke's 17 saves gave him 40 in two games against Virginia this year, with a save percentage of .667. Rhody Heller finished with 11 saves for Virginia.
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 head 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.”
White, O’Relly, Mark Cockerton and Harry Prevas represented Virginia on the all-tournament team, 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 also were a tournament record.