CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — North Carolina streamed onto the Klockner Stadium pitch, an overdue victory against a conference rival and a ticket to the ACC title game in hand.
Watching was a weary Virginia, on the wrong end of an 11-9 semifinal loss and an ouster from the first of its two postseason tournaments.
Ultimately, the ACC tournament is but a blip for a supposed national title contender. That’s what the Cavaliers (10-3) consider themselves, three straight losses at home for the first time since 1968 be damned.
Should the Cavaliers recover and turn into their usual May selves, Friday night will be forgotten. Just think about a season ago, as Virginia muddled through a miserable April before surging to a national title.
“There’s no need to panic,” attackman Steele Stanwick said. “Last year, we were hitting rock bottom at this point. We just have to get back on the practice field. We’ve had a great season so far, and we just haven’t had a good an outing these last few times.”
Indeed, there’s a difference between last spring’s murkiness and two setbacks in an eight-day stretch this month. For one, there was a hint of hope with a consistent give-and-take with the Tar Heels (10-4) for about three quarters – vast improvement over a feeble 13-5 loss to Duke.
This isn’t a team hopeful it will stumble into its identity like last year, not a bunch trying desperately to survive with a defense that for this program with its tradition of athleticism seemed almost like a gimmick.
No, these Cavaliers know who they are. They’re a bunch that was 10-1 a little more than a week ago, an overtime loss their only blemish.
“If we keep working the way we’ve been working, I think we’ll punch our way out of this and we’ll be fine,” coach Dom Starsia said.
Still, this isn’t baseball or even basketball. As much as May remains a heavily weighted portion of the lasting impression of a team, each game carries its own share of influence.
So what stands out about Virginia’s slide? Its offense is scuffling aside from Stanwick, who passed Doug Knight to take over the Cavaliers’ career points lead (253) with a magisterial two-goal, five-assist performance. Its modest depth – only 19 players appeared Friday – has also been exploited.
There is nothing forgiving about Virginia’s schedule. From the start of March to the ACC tournament, there’s a heavyweight (or two) every week. Like it or not, the Cavaliers are beat up, a bit exhausted from a grind Starsia tries not to play up.
“We can’t make that excuse,” defenseman Matt Lovejoy said. “It’s a tough stretch in the season for us. We play a lot of great teams. We have to see the positive in this. We kind of played an NCAA tournament run right there. Those are a lot of teams we’re going to see. Hopefully, we’ll learn from this now and we’ll be ready to go.”
The third-seeded Tar Heels (10-4) learned plenty since their last meeting with Virginia a fortnight earlier. They unleashed their copious offensive depth, limited turnovers and generally played a sharp-witted game until Marcus Holman was tagged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 1:55 to go to permit the Cavaliers a man-up chance that led to a pair of late goals.
Nonetheless there was a cushion, hence North Carolina’s celebration after dropping 19 of its past 21 to Virginia.