CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Both teams came out firing Saturday at Kenan Stadium and offered up what eventually turned into a shootout – an instant classic.
Luke Goldstock started it off 17 seconds following the opening faceoff between the 13th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels and the top-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
From there, the goals just kept coming.
The Tar Heels led 1-0, the beginning to what eventually turned into a proverbial game of runs that resulted in the Fighting Irish suffering their first Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) loss in two seasons, losing 17-15 by the time the final horn sounded.
Senior attackman Steve Pontrello matched linemate Goldstock’s four-goal, two-assist finish that led to one of the biggest, if not the biggest comeback UNC has staged in its history.
Members of the Tar Heels’ 1981, 1982, 1986, and 1991 NCAA championship teams were also hand to be honored at halftime as well as cheering on this year’s seven-member senior class to the historic ending of the regular season.
According to Goldstock, there was a lot of emotion with current and former team members congregating together leading up to the game.
It held a lot of meaning for every player.
“We’re always happy playing for the guy next to us, but especially this game – we were playing for our seniors,” Goldstock said.
“It was their last home game and what a way to end it.”
Highlights – ACC Digital Network – TheACC.com
While anyone watching would agree the game was an exciting one, Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan and the stunned Irish who were seeking to go undefeated in ACC play for a second straight season, didn’t think so.
“That’s not a great game in our minds,” Corrigan said.
“We don’t like playin’ games like that. We haven’t played a whole lot of 17-15 games and there’s a reason for that. That’s not the way we play. We just gave away too many plays to feel good about that game in any way.”
North Carolina stayed even with the Irish, tied 8-8 at halftime, but trailed 14-9 at the end of the third quarter.
Many thought it was too much of a deficit to overcome, especially against the best team in the country.
Even North Carolina head coach Joe Breschi was concerned.
“It was an incredible game,” Breschi said.
“Notre Dame is just a phenomenal team. We were a little nervous at halftime knowing that they only give up nine a game, or that’s the most they had given up. We felt like we could get the opportunities, but we had to can them. Defensively, we were a little disheveled.”
Though not playing well defensively, the Tar Heels offense eventually shook off the suffocating grasp and pace the Notre Dame defense offered up for three periods and picked up its tempo.
The seven-goal run that Chris Cloutier began on a solo effort with under 10 minutes to go exemplified the persistence that Breschi and his coaching staff reinforced his team to play with.
“We just got after it on the ground balls,” Breschi said.
“We said one play at a time. The momentum swings in this game were ridiculous. For us to battle back is a credit to our kids, credit to our coaching staff – it was a team win.”
The Fighting Irish struggled to contain the quicker off-ball cuts and passes within eight yards that allowed snipers like Goldstock to capitalize on.
While Sergio Perkovic and Mikey Wynne led Notre Dame’s offensive efforts with four and three goals respectively, the Irish didn’t have any luck remaining in scoring enough to maintain their lead.
Notre Dame’s offensive efforts didn’t pay off as three shots rebounded of the post during the final quarter.
While scoring 12 against UNC freshman Colin Reder who finished with six saves, the Irish could only beat Brian Balkam three times.
Reder, who made his first-ever collegiate start, learned only 30 minutes before the game that he would step in for an ill Balkam.
Doing his best to keep the Tar Heels close, Reder was eventually relieved by Balkam who felt better to step in at the 4:14 mark of the third quarter.
The Irish couldn’t beat Balkam while the Tar Heels overwhelmed an experienced keeper in Shane Doss.
Coming into the game, he had averaged 6.45 goals against, but that number ballooned after 60 minutes.
“We just moved the ball, got exchanges on off-ball play, and took good shots,” Pontrello said.
“I don’t think he (Doss) was seeing a lot of them near the end. We were just takin’ good quality shots and sharing the ball more.”
North Carolina face-off specialist Stephen Kelly stuck one of the final daggers into the Irish defense when he won the draw, one of 19-of-35 he claimed on the day, and ran the distance to score the game winner with 2:50 remaining.
Corrigan wasn’t happy with how his team responded – unable to compose itself enough to hold on – regardless of the momentum North Carolina was riding.
“We made mental errors,” he said.
“We made mental errors and gave them man-up. We made mental errors and gave them two-men up. We made mental errors in an unsettled situation, and we didn’t get stops when we needed them.”
With the win, the Tar Heels earned a shared of the ACC regular season title with the Irish, but more importantly earned the top seed in next week’s ACC tournament.
Even if UNC doesn’t win an automatic qualifier spot with a league tournament win, the dramatic victory late in the season over the top team in the country should fare favorably for consideration of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Though nothing is guaranteed at this point, the win over the Irish was one that provided Pontrello and his fellow seniors a game to remember when they look back on their playing careers with the Tar Heels.
“This was just a humungous win,” Pontrello said.
“It was our last regular-season ACC game. We’re not done yet, but this is a huge win. It was a great effort by everybody.”