In one of the most unpredictable and unbelievable seasons in NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse history, it was only fitting that an unheralded, unseeded, and on on-the-bubble team won the whole thing.
North Carolina captured the 2016 NCAA championship via a Chris Cloutier goal scored with 1:39 remaining in overtime, lifting the Tar Heels to a 14-13 victory over Maryland at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The victory gave the storied Tar Heel program its first title since 1991 and fifth all-time.
The game-winner came after a stunning sequence of events surrounding the end of regulation and the beginning of overtime.
Tied at 13, North Carolina (12-6) goalie Brian Balkam made a save with four seconds remaining in regulation. Whistles blew in the ensuing groundball scrum, and a scuffle on the opposite end of the field resulted in UNC’s Luke Goldstock getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, giving Maryland (17-3) a free possession and a man-up advantage to start overtime.
On the opening possession of overtime, Balkam made a save on Maryland’s Connor Kelly. The Tar Heels cleared and went into their offense, with Cloutier getting a wide-open look on the crease to win the game. Maryland goalie Kyle Bernlohr came up with an unbelievable save, but in the ensuing scrum near the crease, Maryland’s Mike McCarney was called for a cross check. Cloutier made good on his second chance, catching a pass from Michael Tagliaferri and delivering a low-to-low shot that found the back of the net on Bernlohr’s off-hip.
“I got to say I was a little hesitant to take that shot, because I was pretty heartbroken from the stuff before that,” said Cloutier. “But on that specific play, that’s a play that [Tagliaferri] and I do quite a bit in practice, and throughout the year. And when he threw that ball to me and I was hands-free, I just thought I could take it and luckily it went in. You do what you do.”
Cloutier’s goal capped off what was instantly recognized as one of the most exciting and intense games all season.
North Carolina started the game as it had done in both its quarterfinal and semifinal victories in this tournament, jumping out to a big lead early and suggesting that the Tar Heels might just dominate another opponent.
But Maryland promptly fought back, with freshman Austin Henningsen gradually finding success at the face-off X against Stephen Kelly. Henningsen went on to dominate the fixture, winning 19-of-30 draws, a reversal of fortune from the regular season matchup that Kelly dominated. His play helped fuel Maryland throughout the day, giving plenty of possessions as the Terps began to play a pace conducive to their style of play in the second and early third quarter.
Maryland eventually reached a 9-7 lead with 10:05 remaining in the third quarter. It was at this point that Cloutier really came on for the Heels, notching three straight goals to give North Carolina a 10-9 lead and preventing Maryland from pulling away. The Heels continually fought back to force a tie and overtime. Cloutier finished with five goals in the contest and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, with his 19 tournament goals breaking an NCAA record.
“I was telling my friends earlier in the year that everyone on this team believed that we could absolutely do it this year,” said Cloutier, whose Tar Heels were largely written off all season after losing Jimmy Bitter, Joey Sankey, and Chad Tutton – three of the program’s most prolific scorers.
“Getting here and being able to have the end of the season that we did is truly amazing. And I couldn’t have any of my success without any of [my teammates]. Me not really being the fastest guy on the team, I can’t really just set up myself. So I have guys like Luke here and [Pontrello] drawing all the attention, and me kind of just getting the dunks.”
The victory capped off a rollercoaster season for North Carolina. The Tar Heels were 3-3 early in the season, and had remarkable victories and discouraging losses throughout the year. On Selection Sunday, they were on the bubble…