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North Carolina at Virginia: The Big Preview

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Hoos host Heels in pivotal Sunday night clash against ACC foe.

Zed Williams hopes to return to the lineup tonight.
Inside Lacrosse Photo: Jaclyn Borowski

With three regular season games left, it’s do or die time for Virginia. Wins over Loyola and Richmond are good for the resume, but with four, one-goal losses (two in overtime) to Syracuse, Penn, Notre Dame, and Johns Hopkins, the Hoos still have some work to do to make both the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament. As it stands currently, Virginia is last in the ACC with an 0-2 record. UNC is in fourth at 0-1. With Syracuse at 3-0, Duke at 2-1, and Notre Dame at 1-2 (with their one win coming over UVA)the Hoos and Heels are duking it out for the final spot in the ACC tournament.

Not to sound too dramatic, but if Virginia doesn’t pull off a win tonight, they can kiss their chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament goodbye. Without playing in the ACC tournament, Virginia (most likely) won’t have the resume or the necessary RPI-boosting wins to make their case.

Virginia has struggled - to put it lightly - in conference play over the last few seasons. Their last victory over an ACC team was April 26, 2014, against North Carolina in an ACC tournament consolation showcase game. The last regular season win over an ACC team was a 17-12 victory over Syracuse on March 1, 2014. Lack of success in conference - now 13 straight regular season games - was part of the reason that Virginia decided to part ways with Dom Starsia. A win here would not only be good for playoff chances, but help repair the psyche of a team that can’t seem to get the job done against (very talented) conference teams.

So what can Virginia fans expect tonight against the reigning national champion North Carolina Tar Heels?

North Carolina, currently ranked #19, are on a two game losing skid and have lost four of the last five. Outside of a 13-9 win over Denver, the Heels are also in desperate need of a good win. As a team, they average 10 goals and give up just over eight per game. The Tar Heels have failed to reach double digit goals in losses against Johns Hopkins, Hofstra, Richmond, Maryland and Duke, and in an early season win against Furman. Virginia, ranked 12th in the country, is second in the nation in both goals per game (15.4) and assists per game (10.2). The Cavaliers are first in ground balls per game (45.8), fourth in man-up offense, and fifth in caused turnovers per game (9.1).

On offense, the Tar Heels are led by Chris Cloutier (19 goals, eight assists), Luke Goldstock (18 goals, six assists), and Andy Matthews (seven goals, 17 assists). Timmy Kelly is third on the team in goals with 12 goals. Ball movement is lacking for the Heels, as they average just 5.1 assists per game. Virginia has struggled to slow down fast break plays, something they need to fix to stymie the Heels. North Carolina struggled to create in a settled six-on-six, so while they aren’t known for the run-and-gun style that Virginia plays, the Hoos can’t give them any easy look opportunities.

Defensively, North Carolina has struggled. There’s a chance Virginia can put up a lot of points thanks to their fast pace and UNC’s tendency to ball watch. Senior Austin Pifani anchors the Tar Heel defense with 16 caused turnovers and 16 ground balls. His 16 caused turnovers lead the team by a wide margin as no other Carolina player has more than six. First year Michael Kraus leads the Wahoos with 28 goals and 20 assists. Mike D’Amario is tied for first on the team with Kraus with 28 points, and Virginia’s other superstar first year, Dox Aitken, has 26 goals.

In cage, North Carolina plays Brian Balkam, who has a 51% save percentage and lets in just over nine goals per game. Virginia’s Griffin Thompson has played well since earning the starting nod, with 12 saves against Richmond and 16 against Johns Hopkins. At the faceoff X, the Hoos will have a challenge against Carolina’s Stephen Kelly, who wins 56% of his attempts. Jason Murphy (57%) and Luke Brugel (59%) have been solid for Virginia so far this season, and Ryan Conrad (team leading 55 ground balls) is a vacuum off the turf.

One of the big stories of the game will be whether Virginia has senior attackman Zed Williams available for the game. Zed’s father passed away last Friday and he has been with family in Irving, NY since Virginia’s win over Richmond last Saturday. The Hoos posted a 20-7 victory over Cleveland State on Tuesday, led by four goals from Joe French, Williams’s best friend on the team. With 19 goals and 22 assists, Williams is not only a huge asset on the field, but an emotional leader for the Hoos. All of us here at Streaking the Lawn extend our deepest condolences to Zed and his entire family.

Check out the action tonight on ESPNU at 7pm.