The No. 8 Virginia men’s lacrosse team used a 3-0 run in the fourth quarter of the ACC Showcase Saturday to earn a 13-11 win against sixth-ranked North Carolina. The win marks the Cavaliers’ first conference victory since their 17-12 thrashing of Syracuse March 1.
Virginia (10-5, 1-4 ACC) will now look ahead to the NCAA Tournament, which begins May 10. The Cavaliers will not know their path to the championship until the NCAA Selection Show airs May 4 at 9 p.m. And while their exact fate remains unknown, the Cavaliers’ coach believes their season has likely earned the program a high seed in the playoffs.
“I think we could be as high as four, five, or six going into the [NCAA] Tournament,” coach Dom Starsia said. “We have a pretty solid playoff résumé.”
The Cavaliers jumped out to an early lead Saturday against North Carolina when sophomore attackman James Pannell and junior attackman Tyler German scored in the first five minutes of the game. The Tar Heels (10-4, 2-3 ACC) quickly responded with a pair of goals of their own to tie the score at two with 6:39 to play in the quarter.
After Pannell scored his second of the day, the Tar Heels took control of the game. North Carolina went on a 6-1 run to amass an 8-4 lead with just more than six minutes to play in the half. With 2:37 remaining before halftime, Cavalier junior midfielder Ryan Tucker stopped the bleeding with a tally to narrow the Tar Heel lead to three goals.
Virginia entered the second half with an extra-man opportunity, as North Carolina was penalized for slashing with 45 seconds to play in the second quarter. The Cavaliers retained possession without facing off, and senior midfielder Rob Emery scored just five seconds into the third quarter to bring Virginia within two.
The Emery tally sparked a 4-1 run in the quarter, and Virginia would tie the score at 9-9 halfway through the third. The Tar Heels scored twice more in the frame to take an 11-10 lead into the fourth quarter. But the Cavalier defense buckled down in the final 15 minutes and did not yield a goal, largely thanks to four saves by freshman goaltender Matt Barrett.
Senior attackman Mark Cockerton had two assists and an empty-net goal in the fourth quarter to ensure the Cavalier victory. The run gave the Ontario native seven points on the day — four goals and three assists.
The Cavaliers finished the regular season with the nation’s second hardest schedule according to LaxPower, with an RPI of .7138. The schedule included seven of the current top-10 teams in the country and two more in the top-20. Virginia holds a record of 5-5 against these elite opponents, as it played North Carolina twice.
Each of Virginia’s five losses came at the hands of ACC opponents, including three straight losses in the final four weeks of the season. However, just six goals combined decided the outcome of those games, and Virginia’s victory Saturday illustrates that it is capable of competing with any team in the country.
“I think every week since we started ACC play we’ve gotten better,” sophomore long-stick midfielder Joseph Lisicky said. “The teams in the ACC are so strong that you don’t really have any days off, so we definitely feel better than we did at the beginning of our conference schedule.”
This season’s NCAA Tournament will look different from past years, as it now features an 18-team field in which the four lowest-seeded automatic bid teams must compete in a play-in game to earn their right to play in the 16-team first round. Due to the Cavaliers’ performances against elite programs, though, this rule change will likely not be of much concern.
In fact, Starsia believes his team has a good chance of playing its first round game at Klöckner Stadium.
“I think we have a very strong shot at hosting a game,” Starsia said. “It’s hard to overlook what we’ve done with the number of games we’ve played and our strength of schedule overall.”
If the selection committee does grant Virginia a home game, the Cavaliers’ odds of moving on to the quarterfinals would appear to greatly improve — they are 6-1 at home this season, losing only to No. 2 Duke, 17-15.
Regardless of where they play, however, Virginia is inarguably in a better position than last year’s team, which was not eligible for tournament consideration with a losing record at 7-8. Given all of their success this season, it appears the 2014 Cavaliers are well-positioned to make a run at another NCAA Championship for the first time in four years.