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No. 5 Virginia men’s lacrosse hangs on to beat No. 1 North Carolina in Final Four thriller

In an all-time classic, the Cavaliers took down the Tar Heels 12-11 to advance to their second consecutive national championship game

<p>The Cavaliers managed a nail-biting 12-11 victory over the Tar Heels as the match-up came down to the wire.</p>

The Cavaliers managed a nail-biting 12-11 victory over the Tar Heels as the match-up came down to the wire.

After splitting the two regular season matchups, No. 5 Virginia (13-4, 2-4 ACC) was able to take down No. 1 North Carolina (13-3, 4-2 ACC) in the rubber match to advance to the 2021 NCAA Championship game. In an absolute thriller, the Cavaliers rode a 12-8 fourth quarter lead to hang on in a 12-11 victory. Redshirt freshman attackman Connor Shellenberger paced the Cavaliers with two goals and four assists, while senior goalie Alex Rode recorded 15 saves on 26 shots faced.

Junior midfielder Jeff Conner opened up the game with the first goal of the contest, a right-handed bouncer off of a feed from senior midfielder Dox Aitken. The teams traded two goals apiece, with sophomore attackman Payton Cormier netting his first goal of the contest, until North Carolina senior midfielder William Perry broke the tie to end the first quarter as the Tar Heels led 3-2.

Shellenberger and Perry traded goals to open the second frame, keeping the contest close. The Cavaliers then went on a six-goal run to take a 9-4 lead going into the half, paced by senior attackman Charlie Bertrand’s two goals and goals by senior attackman Matt Moore, Cormier, senior long-stick midfielder Jared Conners and sophomore midfielder Peter Garno. 

After Moore’s goal with 12 minutes left in the half, the star attackman headed to the locker room with an apparent shoulder injury. He was able to return to the sideline right before the intermission began and returned to the game in the third quarter.

Coming out of the locker room, the Tar Heels came out firing, with senior attackman Chris Gray and Perry both notching goals to bring the deficit down to only three goals. Shellenberger stopped the bleeding for the Cavaliers, but not for long — North Carolina fired back with another two goals, cutting the Virginia lead to 10-8. 

Shellenberger starred yet again to end the third frame, assisting on goals to Cormier and senior attackman Ian Laviano. Those were the fifth and sixth points for the redshirt freshman, pacing his career day on the biggest stage in the sport — Memorial Day weekend.

The final frame was all Tar Heels — the rain, Virginia’s sloppiness and the North Carolina ride were all factors in keeping the ball in the Tar Heels’ possession for a majority of the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers had 22 turnovers on the day that kept the Tar Heels in the game, as Gray netted his 49th goal of the season to make it a three-goal game with 13 minutes left to play. 

A wild, up-and-down seven minutes ensued as Virginia wasn’t able to hold possession, leading to Perry’s fourth goal of the contest, cutting the deficit to two with six minutes remaining. A Cavalier shot by Garno in that timespan rattled off the post, denying Virginia of a chance to extend its lead.

Another three-minute-long sequence of craziness ensued, marked by three turnovers and a Virginia penalty on senior midfielder John Fox for holding. Despite being able to kill the 30-second power play, the Virginia defense succumbed to Perry’s fifth goal of the afternoon, making it a 12-11 game with just three minutes left to play. 

During the sequence, Bertrand was penalized for slashing, giving North Carolina another extra-man opportunity. Despite being a man down, the Cavalier defense was able to stifle the Tar Heel man-up unit yet again, giving Virginia possession as Coach Lars Tiffany called a timeout with just 1:25 left in the contest.

After 20 seconds of running around to milk the clock, the Cavaliers had another turnover, losing possession, and leading to a timeout called with just 46 seconds left. Coach Joe Breschi dialed up a play for his star attackman Gray, but Gray sent his shot just wide with 31 seconds on the clock. Virginia midfielder Grayson Sallade, who had eight ground balls on the day, was able to dive towards the end line and obtain possession for the Cavaliers.

With one last clear left to seal the deal for the Cavaliers, Rode’s outlet pass was errant after being checked by Perry, giving the Tar Heels once last chance with 20 seconds remaining. 

Despite this last opportunity, the Virginia defense held on, with junior midfielder Chris Merle forcing Gray into throwing an errant pass. Freshman defender Cole Kastner knocked the pass down to the grass, punching the Cavaliers’ ticket to their second consecutive national championship game appearance.

It was truly a tale of two halves for both teams. The Cavaliers dominated the first half with clean play and possession, as junior faceoff man Petey LaSalla was able to win a majority of the first half faceoffs. The second half flipped the script for both teams, as North Carolina stifled LaSalla at the faceoff X and the Tar Heel ride forced turnover after turnover to keep the ball away from Shellenberger, Moore and the rest of the potent Virginia offense.

“What a fantastic lacrosse game,” Tiffany said. “Joe Breschi’s team never gave up.”

The Tar Heels showed fight in the second half, winning by a score of 7-3. However, the comeback was too little, too late, as Rode made save after save to keep Virginia on top.

“When everyone’s watching, Alex Rode steps up even bigger,” Tiffany said. “When on the biggest stage, this is Alex Rode’s platform. This is Alex Rode, that’s who he is, and we’re very grateful that he plays for Virginia.”

The Cavaliers look to repeat as national champions on Monday for a Memorial Day showdown versus longtime rival No. 3 Maryland, who throttled No. 2 Duke 14-5 in the other semifinal matchup. Rode and company look to defend their title by limiting senior attackman Jared Berndhart, the odds-on favorite to win the Tewaaraton Award for the top player in college lacrosse. 

The two teams met in the 2011 national championship game, with Virginia taking home the trophy in a 9-7 victory over the Terrapins.

The NCAA title game is set for a 1 p.m. faceoff at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. against the Big 10 Champion Terrapins. The game will be televised on ESPN2.