Steve Pontrello’s only goal of the game with 1:06 to play put the Tar Heels ahead by one, and infused a tremendous frenzy of cheers from a majority of the 3,201 in attendance.
However, a game-tying goal from Zach Miller with nine seconds to go and an eventual overtime winner from Connor Cannizzaro allowed the Pioneers to slip out of the Triangle with a 13-12 win to remain undefeated at 5-0.
Currently sitting at 3-2 overall, North Carolina pushed Denver as hard as any team had this season.
Even harder, according to Pioneers head coach Bill Tierney who commented afterwards: “They just kept comin’ and comin’ and comin’. It was an exciting game, it was all the fans could ask for. We’re gonna learn a lot from this one, that’s for sure.”
For Tar Heels head coach Joe Breschi, the execution of the game plan his team put forward was what he wanted to see following a 10-5 upset loss to Hofstra on its home field two weeks ago that was followed up with an impressive 15-11 road win over then eighth-ranked John Hopkins last week.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the effort,” Breschi said.
“Certainly a loss is a loss, but I think we learned something about our team this week. I think we got better and we’ll continue to get tougher as we move forward. We were in position to win the game and that’s what we wanted to do.”
Midfielders Patrick Kelly and Michael Tagliaferri posted hat tricks while attackmen Luke Goldstock and Chris Cloutier added a pair to lead the Tar Heels offense.
North Carolina led 6-4 at halftime, but a 7-2 run gave Denver an 11-8 lead with 6:32 to play in the fourth quarter.
Zach Miller scored a game-high four goals while Cannizzaro and Jack Bobzien recorded hat tricks for Denver.
Trevor Baptiste controlled the faceoff-X throughout the game for the Pioneers and claimed 21-of-28 draws over the tandem of brothers Stephen (6-19) and Charles Kelly (0-2) as well as Jack Rowlatt (1-7).
Even while struggling to claim ground balls due to Baptiste’s work off the draw, the Tar Heels presented a more poised and patient offensive attack from start to finish.
It showed in the final quarter when Tagliaferri initiated a 4-0 run for the Tar Heels that led to Pontrello’s go-ahead goal.
It was different than the typical run-and-gun offensive look that many have become accustomed to watching the Tar Heels play.
“We ran the game plan well,” Patrick Kelly said.
“I thought we ran our schemes well – when we had the ball, we were doin’ great. Our defense was workin’ real hard off ball. We were fightin’ for ground balls.”
While Tierney felt that his team dodged a loss, Breschi felt good about the push his team made against the Pioneers.
“Our goal coming in was to be patient, not to settle for the first opportunity, but to get the best one,” he said.
“I thought those guys handled the game plan to a T, and put us in a position to win the game.”
Though the Pioneers found the soft spots in the North Carolina close defense in the third quarter, goalkeeper Brian Balkam made his share of saves, 12 in total, and kept the game tied with a big stop on Cannizzaro’s backhander in the dying seconds of regulation time.
Unfortunately for Balkam and the Tar Heels, the final possession that Denver earned in overtime allowed Cannizzaro to finish what he started by putting the final shot of the game into the cage.
“He’s been very consistent in there,” Breschi said of Balkam.
“I feel for him because he had played so hard and I know he wanted to get that last save.”