Pontrello, Balkam lead Tar Heels men’s lacrosse to Final Four

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COLUMBUS, OHIO Prophetic words, scoring and stops were part of sending the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s lacrosse team to Final Four weekend of the 2016 NCAA Championship Tournament for the first time since 1993.

The long-awaited trip to the semifinals for UNC (10-6) came about as the result of a 13-9 win over No. 3 seed Notre Dame (11-6) at Ohio Stadium on Saturday.

Six-point performances from attackmen Steve Pontrello (4 goals, 2 assists) and Chris Cloutier (3 goals, 3 assists) led a UNC offense that posted an 11-3 advantage after three quarters of play.

Goalkeeper Brian Balkam’s career-matching 14-save performance denied the Fighting Irish the opportunity to stay close, let alone pull even with the Tar Heels.

Trailing from the outset, and even while outscoring North Carolina 6-2 during the final period led by attackman Mikey Wynne (4 goals), Notre Dame couldn’t piece together enough of a comeback to get any closer.

Another dominating performance at the faceoff-X from draw man Stephen Kelly (17-25), who picked-up a team-high 11 ground balls, enabled the Tar Heels to maintain ample possession time and successfully convert to lead 6-2 at halftime.

It was North Carolina’s second win over Notre Dame this season, with the first coming about as part of a dramatic 17-15 ending at Kenan Stadium on Apr. 23rd.

While Balkam didn’t start that game against the Fighting Irish, his entrance late in the third quarter held them off enough for UNC’s offense to finish the job.

In front of alumni watching from the program’s 1981, 1982, 1986, and 1991 NCAA championship teams, the Tar Heels, sitting with an overall record of 8-5 at the time, made an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament a strong possibility after beating the then No. 1-ranked team in the country.

“We’re not done yet,” Pontrello said following that game.

Indeed, the prophetic words of the team’s leading scorer have echoed true throughout the postseason to date.

Even while losing to eventual ACC tournament champion and No. 8 seed Syracuse, the Tar Heels earned their at-large spot in the tournament.

UNC then held off six-seeded Marquette for a 10-9 victory in Milwaukee, Wisc. last Saturday, and advanced to the quarterfinals to face the Irish again.

From the opening faceoff, Pontrello and Balkam helped the Tar Heels to outscore and limit Notre Dame at both ends of the field.

North Carolina now prepares for a meeting on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa. with the seventh-seeded Loyola Greyhounds (14-3), 10-8 quarterfinal winners over the Towson Tigers.