DURHAM, N.C. — North Carolina not only saved its men's lacrosse season, but the Tar Heels picked up an Atlantic Coast Conference championship along the way. So the reigning national champions should have a chance to defend their title in May.
"We had to do this or this would be the end," junior attackman Chris Cloutier said. "It's also something that pushes us."
The fourth-seeded Tar Heels, facing a must-win situation in the ACC Tournament championship game, defeated third-seeded Notre Dame 14-10 on Sunday afternoon at Duke's Koskinen Stadium.
Cloutier, who was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, said there were times in recent weeks when it was difficult to believe this was possible for the Tar Heels.
"We want more time with our brothers," he said.
A partisan crowd of more than 2,300 cheered on the Tar Heels, who generally acknowledged that a degree of desperation was part of the championship formula.
"That's 18- to 22-year-olds and understanding that the season will end if you lose," North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. "Just so proud how they handled this."
By avoiding a losing record, the Tar Heels (8-7) are under consideration for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, with that field announced next Sunday. With only five schools playing men's lacrosse, the ACC is without an automatic bid to the NCAAs.
After defeating top-ranked Syracuse 16-15 in Friday night's semifinals and then Notre Dame -- a pair of teams atop the Rating Percentage Index entering the week -- it's largely believed that North Carolina will land in the NCAA Tournament bracket.
"We knew we weren't out," senior attackman Luke Goldstock said. "We just had to win two games. ... We're just running off energy right now."
Having won twice in the tournament, Breschi has other goals.
"Now we have to win six straight," he said, referring to four victories needed for a national title.
This was North Carolina's ninth ACC Tournament title, though its first since 2013.
The final score reflects the largest margin in any of the last five North Carolina games. Senior Stephen Kelly won 10 of 11 fourth-quarter face-offs to help preserve what at times looked like a shaky advantage.
The Tar Heels scored on four of their first seven shots, building a 4-0 lead less than 7.5 minutes into the game.
By the time Cloutier tallied off a rebound with 4:36 left in the first half, everything seemed to be going North Carolina's way with a 7-2 score.
From there, it was largely the Tar Heels' spirited defense that dominated the game's tone until Bryan Costabile's unassisted goal with 3:52 to go in the third quarter to close the gap to 8-4. The Irish scored two more before the end of the quarter.
The Tar Heels scored first in the fourth quarter, with Tanner Cook converting on the team's fourth shot in a man-up sequence. Next, Goldstock scored in transition as the Notre Dame sideline reacted angrily after a North Carolina check at the other end.
When William Perry scored following a Notre Dame penalty, the Tar Heels had three goals in a 2:19 span and an 11-6 lead.
Notre Dame rallied with a pair of goals, but Goldstock scored twice in a 75-second stretch to give the Tar Heels momentum again. He made it three fourth-quarter goals with a clincher at the 2:27 mark.
"He steps up in huge games," Cloutier said of Goldstock, a senior attackman. "He always has."
Goldstock finished with four goals and Cloutier had three goals and two assists.
Brendan Gleason scored three goals for Notre Dame (8-4), which won 14-13 against North Carolina at home eight days earlier. This was the first ACC Tournament meeting between the teams, though the Tar Heels won an NCAA Tournament quarterfinal meeting last year.