CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The third-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels dropped an 11-10 heartbreaker to the 11th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish in front of 2,232 in attendance at Fetzer Field on Saturday.
Jimmy Bitter tallied a hat trick and led a diversified offensive barrage that caught Notre Dame by surprise during the first half.
However, Notre Dame’s Matt Kavanagh matched Bitter’s effort with three goals of his own while rallying his team from a five-goal deficit to hand the Tar Heels their first loss of the season.
Meeting for the first time as Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) opponents, the two teams’ matchup ended up as another one-goal affair, similar to the one that took place last year at Notre Dame.
The Kelly brothers, Frankie and Stephen, once again platooned at the faceoff X while R.G. Keenan continued to recover from a lower body injury suffered in practice a few weeks ago.
The pair had their hands full with Notre Dame’s Liam O’Connor who dominated ball possession, winning 16 of 23 faceoffs he took throughout the game.
Even with O’Connor doing an exceptional job to get the ball into the North Carolina end of the field, it took Notre Dame a full half before it figured out how to penetrate through a Tar Heels defense that had allowed five goals or less in its previous three games.
North Carolina goalkeeper Kieran Burke finished with 10 saves while suffering his first loss of the season.
As North Carolina (3-1) led 7-3 at halftime fueled by the output of six different scorers, Notre Dame (2-1) changed goalkeepers in between quarters to try to slow the Tar Heels offensive barrage somewhat.
With starter Connor Kelly unable to make any stops during the first quarter and with his team trailing 5-1, Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan opted to replace him with Shane Doss.
Doss made four saves during the second quarter while the Fighting Irish managed to score, but they still trailed by four when they headed into the locker room.
“The message was don’t panic,” Corrigan said of what he told his team.
“If you watch that game, I don’t think the quality of play was very different between the two teams in the first half, outside of the goal. They got some saves and we didn’t. I thought we were getting what we wanted offensively. We just weren’t putting them away and taking advantage. Defensively, we were giving up some of the things we wanted to give up, but we weren’t getting saves. So our message was don’t panic, just stay the course. We’re going to be okay.”
While Pat Foster (2 goals), Chad Tutton (1 goal, 1 assist), Jake Matthai (1 goal), Shane Simpson (1 goal), and Luke Goldstock (1 goal ) combined with Bitter’s initial tally during the opening half, attackman Joey Sankey added his lone goal of the game at 13:49 of the third quarter to put the Tar Heels in firm control and leading 8-3.
“We had a really strong start,” Bitter said.
“We were up 7-3 at halftime and we knew they were going to come in the third quarter playing really hard and come for us. We knew they were going to make a surge. Our plan was to keep playing how we were playing, but we kind of lost our energy in the third quarter and in the fourth quarter.”
It took another 15 minutes before North Carolina put another ball into the cage as Kavanagh along with Tyler Brenneman (1 goal), Sergio Perkovic (2 goals) and Jim Marlatt (1 goal) compiled a 5-0 run that eventually tied the game 8-8 with 14:31 to play in the final quarter.
Even while the Tar Heels defense ventured into new territory by allowing more than five goals in a game, the combination of struggling defensively and taking undisciplined penalties provided Notre Dame the chances it needed to take the lead for the first time in the game.
Finishing the game scoring on four of seven EMO’s, the Irish maximized upon a two-man up situation to come to within a goal, trailing 8-7 as the third quarter ended.
“We had our opportunities, but I thought it started to slip at the end of the third quarter,” North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said.
“We had multiple penalties called. We had four penalties called in the third quarter which changed the complexity of the game. Anytime you give up four man-down goals, it’s disappointing and changes the game.”
After Kavanagh tied the game at the 14:31 mark, Bitter gave the Tar Heels the lead back 82 seconds later.
However, via O’Connor, Notre Dame claimed ball possession off the draw and allowed the its offensive surge to continue.
Conor Doyle and Jack Near posted their lone goals of the game before another man-up situation allowed Perkovic to score the eventual game-winner for Notre Dame with 4:14 to play.
Bitter added his final goal with 3:51 to go which left the Irish with a slim one-goal lead to hold onto.
Even while Notre Dame had swung the entire momentum of the game in its favor, North Carolina earned its chances to clear the ball up to its capable attack.
However, a tired Tar Heels defensive unit couldn’t effectively clear the ball on three separate occasions and instead allowed the Irish to use up valuable minutes on the clock.
With under a minute remaining, a successful North Carolina 10-man ride finally turned the ball over and Breschi called a timeout to set up a play to attempt to tie the game, still trailing 11-10, with 23 seconds to go.
Foster eventually got the ball and let a shot go that Doss successfully stopped to secure the comeback win for Notre Dame.
“I think the early offense for them was effective,” Breschi said.
“I think they were getting their opportunities because they had a ton of possessions. They were winning the faceoff battle; they were man-up most of the second half. Our offense is explosive when we can get the ball. I guess that was the most disappointing thing, we put a lot of pressure on our defense, and a lot of pressure on Kieran to make plays…It’s early. It’s a long season, so we’ll fight to get better for this week comin’ up.”