All-American long pole Jesse Bernhardt and defending ACC Freshman of the Year defender Goran Murray led a group of Terrapins men’s lacrosse players rushing across the turf of Byrd Stadium’s field Saturday chasing a loose ball near their own net.
The Terps outnumbered North Carolina in the ensuing scrum, but after several seconds of urgent struggle, Tar Heels attackman Jimmy Bitter emerged with the ball.
He then shoveled a pass to wide-open teammate Marcus Holman, who easily fired the ball past Terps goalkeeper Niko Amato, giving the Tar Heels a 6-2 advantage midway through the third quarter.
It was the type of opportunistic play the Terps usually make. But Saturday, everything seemed to unravel a bit differently for the nation’s top-ranked team.
The Terps’ second-ranked offense struggled mightily and failed to jump out to its typical fast start as the nation’s last unbeaten fell to No. 14 North Carolina, 10-8, in front of 3,053 fans at Byrd Stadium.
“The season is a grind, you go through a lot of ups and downs. You know you’re not going to play your ‘A’ game every single week,” Terps coach John Tillman said. “Sometimes you’re not going to have the magic.”
The Terps’ (6-1, 1-1) offense seemed to lose any magic it had in the season’s first six games.
After Terps attackman Owen Blye notched a pair of goals in the game’s first six minutes, the offense stalled. The Tar Heels (5-3, 1-1) took advantage, rattling off three straight goals to end the first frame with a 5-2 lead.
The Terps' offense couldn’t get going in the second quarter either. The Tar Heels congested the middle of the field in an attempt to stymie the Terps’ talented midfielders, helping North Carolina take a 6-2 lead into halftime.
“We really wanted to cover the crease,” North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. “We felt like if we could force perimeter shots, we like our chances with our goalie. And I thought it was a great effort.”
North Carolina effectively kept the Terps from earning easy scoring opportunities and Tar Heels freshman goaltender Kieran Burke saved 15 of 23 shots on goal.
After Blye’s second goal in the first quarter, the Terps went more than 33 minutes without a goal before attackman Kevin Cooper finally found the back of the net midway throughout the third quarter. The drought was easily the Terps’ longest of the season and typified their deficiencies Saturday afternoon.
“We just never really got into a rhythm,” midfielder Jake Bernhardt said. “Their goalie played really well. He made the saves he needed to make and kept them in the game.”
The Terps did gain a bit of momentum after Cooper’s goal. Jake Bernhardt added consecutive goals and the team capitalized on a pair of man-up opportunities in the fourth quarter.
But it was too late. The Terps came into the game leading the nation with a .431 shot percentage. Saturday, though, their paltry .189 shot percentage kept them from overcoming an early three-goal deficit.
“When you dig yourself that big of a hole,” Tillman said, “it’s really tough to dig yourself out of it.”
The Terps’ struggles Saturday resulted in an ACC loss and cost them their undefeated record. After cruising through the season’s first five games with solid victories, the Terps needed to battle for a victory at unranked Villanova last week before losing Saturday.
Yet Amato strolled into a makeshift pressroom after the game with the same determined facial expression he sported after each of the team’s wins.
The All-ACC netminder is used to winning. Now he knows his team is prepared to refocus.
“It was a little bit of a gut check. Our coach said it best that we made a lot of progress since the beginning of the year and I think we started to lose our edge,” Amato said. “We’re not perfect. We haven’t played a perfect game this year, which is good for us because it means we have room to get better.”