Quite matter-of-factly, the Virginia Cavaliers handled the #9 North Carolina Tar Heels with a 19-12 win that re-stamped their authority as one of the nation’s best. Even without Connor Shellenberger active, the Wahoo offense flowed well throughout the game as the UVA defense hounded UNC for all four quarters.
With the win, we’ve got five takeaways for the Cavaliers moving forward.
Virginia dominates with superior physicality
If there was one theme that was present throughout yesterday’s sixty minute mud bath, it was how UVA simply out-toughed UNC all game long. Whether it was for 50-50 ground balls, when North Carolina was dodging, or when the ‘Hoos tried to fight the muck and the rain to get a step offensively, Virginia simply dominated the Tar Heels with superior athleticism and straight up better effort.
UVA picked up 42 ground balls compared to North Carolina’s 28 including a 24-11 advantage on loose balls not off the face-off. Additionally, the Wahoos forced seven turnovers and held the Tar Heels to just a 78.9% successful clearing rate.
Beyond the team-wide stats, the way UVA’s defense hounded North Carolina’s offensive players was a sight to see. The physicality of Cade Saustad (two caused turnovers, two ground balls), Cole Kastner (one ct, two gbs), Quentin Matsui (two gbs), Scott Bower (four gbs), Mitchell Whalen (four gbs), Evan Zinn (one goal), Grayson Sallade (two cts, four gbs, one assist), Noah Chizmar (1 ct, 1 gb), Tommy McNeal (1 gb, 1 ct), and others was incredible to watch and their combined tenacity was completely unrivaled, even against a top-10 conference opponent.
After a game against Duke where it felt like the Blue Devils controlled the game with their physicality despite the ugly conditions, this type of performance from the Cavaliers is an immensely positive sign which points to how they can overwhelm opponents not just with their skill, but also with their extreme size, strength, and speed.
Matt Nunes has arguably his best game of the season
Saving 12 shots while allowing 11 goals (52.2%), Virginia goalie Matt Nunes had arguably the best game of his season yesterday. While he’s had games with better save percentages and more significant stops in closer contests, the quality of saves he had against North Carolina was particularly high.
He guessed on a few shots that resulted in goals early. But, overall, Nunes prevented UNC from ever climbing back into contention and made a number of goal-robbing stops on the doorstep to quash any potential momentum for the Heels.
A confident Matt Nunes is tough to beat in the cage. If he can keep stringing together positive outings like this and the last few games he’s played, the ceiling for Virginia’s defense rises meaningfully.
UVA toes the line in transition
With Shellenberger out for this game with a lower body injury that has him day to day, UVA’s offense was going to need to produce in transition and in unsettled opportunities. Notably after a few games where the ‘Hoos made a few too many unforced mistakes when playing a tad too reckless in transition, the way Virginia managed to score goals off the face-off or off turnovers was a big difference maker yesterday.
Petey LaSalla’s pair of goals (his first since February), Evan Zinn’s transition score off a heroic Grayson Sallade ground ball and assist, and even Cole Kasnter’s 10-man ride breaking goal were all massive boosts for the Wahoos.
Additionally, proper aggression from the offense generated enough goals early in offensive possessions to account for Shellenberger’s absence. Payton Cormier (five goals, two assists) and Xander Dickson (three goals, one assist) were particularly effective in unsettled play as their quality decision making and efficient finishing built an eight-goal first half lead which the Cavaliers never relinquished.
Wahoo offense can produce without Shellenberger
Even in settled offense, the way UVA’s initiators were able to draw help and find the back of the net without Shellenberger in the lineup is an indication of the multitude of dynamic pieces this offense has. Virginia’s 12 assists on 19 goals and 52.8% (!!!) shooting from the field were evidence of a truly effective team offense.
Not to mention, they did it against one of the best team defenses in the country. Entering yesterday’s game, the Heels were allowing just 8.5 goals per game. In ho-hum fashion, UVA put up 19 while taking the air out of the ball for most of the fourth quarter. On top of that, North Carolina has allowed goals on just 19.6% of defensive possessions this season. In yesterday’s game, Virginia scored goals on a whopping 39.6% of possessions. That’s just absurd efficiency, and they did it without the team’s best player!
Next Saturday’s game versus Duke looms large
If there’s one thing Lars Tiffany’s teams can be counted on for, it’s responding well after a loss. With yesterday’s victory, Virginia has now won the game after a loss 18 consecutive times. This season, losses against Maryland and Duke have spurred big wins against highly ranked conference opponents in Notre Dame and North Carolina the following week.
Of course, beyond the fire that this team plays with after a defeat, UVA is still trying to maintain the elite level of play that saw them beat #2 Notre Dame by five in South Bend, #6 Johns Hopkins by five in Baltimore, and #9 North Carolina by seven in Chapel Hill. That pair of losses to the Terps and the Blue Devils is evidence that there is still room for the Wahoos to improve.
They’re undoubtedly in the upper echelon of teams in college lacrosse this season. But can they rise to the top come Memorial Day Weekend? Next Saturday’s rematch with Duke in Durham will provide another reference point for the NCAA Tournament as the Cavaliers look to position themselves for the best possible seed and hope to end Duke’s 17-game regular season win streak.