Denver’s fourth-quarter rally falls short against UNC as they fall 15-13

DENVER – It’s becoming a bit of a pattern now for the #11 Denver Pioneers men’s lacrosse team (3-2). Go down big early, force the defense and goaltenders to up their games, come back late but fall just short against the country’s best teams. It happened against Duke two weeks ago after Denver fell behind 7-2 after the first quarter and it happened again today against #4 North Carolina (5-0) as the Tar Heels raced out to a 9-3 halftime lead. The Pioneers would outscore UNC 10-6 in the second half and 8-2 in the fourth quarter alone but it wasn’t enough as the Pios still fell 15-13, the same score by which they fell to Duke.

Preparing for games against teams like soon-to-be #1 North Carolina can be difficult. Emotionally, it’s easy. But to come out immediately and play a clean game from the start with heightened emotions is hard. And that’s exactly what bit Denver out of the gate. DU committed seven turnovers in the first quarter alone and lost the ground ball battle 18-8 in the first half. Freshman faceoff specialist Alec Stathakis got little to no support from his wings at the X and UNC took full advantage of Denver’s early miscues. The Pios were shut out in the first quarter, 4-0 before Ethan Walker finally found the back of the net early in the second quarter.

Simply put, the first half was a comedy of errors for the Pioneers. Murphy’s Law reigned supreme as just about everything went wrong. By the time the first 30 minutes of lacrosse had been completed, the Pioneers appeared thoroughly beaten by a better team. They did score the half’s final two goals but on the surface, at least, it didn’t seem to matter nor did the multiple pipes they hit.

The second half was a completely different story. UND kept the Pioneers at bay through the third quarter but it was clear that Denver was building a bit of momentum. Stathakis was having more success at the X, Jack Thompson was making more clutch saves, and the offense, the same one that looked incompetent at best in the first half was beginning to slice and dice UNC’s defense. The Pios scored just twice in the third quarter but it was clear that the tide was starting to shift.

Alex Simmons got the scoring started in the 4th quarter with a beautiful high shot to pull the Pioneers to within 7 goals before Jack Hannah and Ethan Walker exploded for seven in the fourth quarter – four from Hannah, three from Walker. Unfortunately, on defense, DU couldn’t keep the Tar Heels from scoring twice in the quarter and those two goals – and the four pipes that Denver hit throughout the game – ended up being the difference on the day.

Just like against Duke, you can’t spot the opposition an explosive start and then two different 8-goal leads and expect to win games. The Tar Heels came out today ready to take it to the Pioneers and the Pioneers took it. Their sloppy play in all phases of the game killed their chances to come away with the upset and yet they still nearly completed a comeback for the ages.

It’s easy to sit 500 feet away in the press box and nitpick what Denver did on the field today and make the connection that if Denver just played better in the first half, they’d have won the game today. And while that’s certainly true, the reality is UNC is a damn good lacrosse team – probably the best in the country – and Denver didn’t have an answer for a full 60 minutes of lacrosse. It’s easy to say that if Denver could just bottle up the fourth quarter performances against Duke and UNC and play like that for the full 60, they’d be the best team in the country.

These Pioneers, though were not prepared for this matchup from the very beginning, are a young work in progress, especially defensively. Though they relied heavily and almost exclusively on the talents of Ethan Walker and Jack Hannah to give them a chance late, the foundation for success in April and May is there and as hard to swallow as losses like the ones to Duke and UNC – Denver’s only losses to this point – are, they are hardening lessons that will offer the Pioneers experience to draw upon when the rubber meets the road down the stretch and into the postseason. But in the meantime, Denver will now leave the state of Colorado for the first time this year to take on #5 Notre Dame in the best rivalry west of the Mississippi and, with it, another opportunity for a resume-building win.

Yes, moral victories suck but there’s a gigantic one staring the Pioneers directly in the face this afternoon.


Top photo credit: Jason Evans

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