SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The only thing that separates Towson State from being on top of the lacrosse world is No. 1 and unbeaten North Carolina.
"There were a lot of other teams that had a lot more tournament experience than us, and we've beaten them," Towson midfielder Rob Shek said. "There's a lot of things motivating us. We're a little school, but now we believe in each other. We're the team that wasn't supposed to be here."
Here is the Carrier Dome, where No. 11 Towson (12-3) will meet North Carolina (15-0) today at noon in the championship game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I tournament.
The Tigers are the second 11th-seeded team to advance to the title game. The other, Cornell, lost to Syracuse in 1988.
To reach this point, Towson has beaten No. 6 Virginia, 14-13; No. 3 Princeton, 14-13, in triple overtime; and No. 7 Maryland, 15-11, in a semifinal Saturday.
But none of Towson's previous opponents possesses North Carolina's speed and depth. The Tar Heels have beaten every major power, including Maryland twice, Johns Hopkins, Virginia and Loyola.
And get this: The Tar Heels have beaten three-time defending champion Syracuse twice this season, including a 19-13 win Saturday in the other semifinal.
"North Carolina hasn't played their best game yet," Maryland coach Dick Edell said.
But the warning doesn't have the Tigers shaking.
"Hey, I've been waiting to get to this stage of my career my whole life," Towson midfielder Tony Millon said. "We're a good team; they're a good team. They're going to play hard. We're going to play hard. Then we'll see what happens when it's all over."
Feel the confidence? Carl Runk, in his 24th season as Tigers coach, has developed this brashness with an underlying theme. Through this tournament, especially the past two days, he has talked about the Tigers' blue-collar work habits and how his team was made up of a bunch of players no other schools had wanted.
"None of our kids were highly recruited by anybody else," Runk said. "They didn't have time for our kids. But these kids have worked hard, and they believe in themselves."
Dave Klarmann, North Carolina's first-year coach, said he disagrees.
"They are not as blue collar as Carl would have you believe," he said. "Just about every kid from that team from central New York was on my list. Everybody has a different budget and different admission standards.
"We do have a football team that is getting back on track, a basketball team with tradition and a beautiful campus," Klarmann said, laughing.
Joking aside, this North Carolina team is loaded. The attack features Dennis Goldstein (43 goals, 24 assists), and the defense stars Graham Harden, Bryan Kelly (Calvert Hall) and Alex Martin (Owings Mills).
But the unit that makes this team go is its midfield. North Carolina starts Donnie McNichol, Craig Hasslinger and Dan Donnelly, but Klarmann uses 12 other middies.
North Carolina rides relentlessly, and the Tar Heels force a fast-paced game. In four years, no other team had outrun Syracuse.
"We play to our strength," Klarmann said. "We hope to wear people down, make them run for 60 minutes. But we never approach any opponent expecting to win."
Meanwhile, the Tigers also like the transition game, but they don't figure to get into a running match with North Carolina. Towson, if it gets an early lead, might try a more deliberate style and go to zone defenses.
But those tactics might not work.
"We're not a finesse team," Runk said. "We're like watching a car accident. We got people all over the damn place. We try to have a little control out there."
But though North Carolina appears to have an edge in team play, Towson does have some outstanding individual players -- attackmen John Blatchley (17 goals, 42 assists), Glenn Smith (41, 10) and Shek (32, nine).
"We can't let certain matchups take place because in some situations they will simply overpower us," Klarmann said.
Towson's depth was hurt considerably Saturday when junior starting defenseman Carl Beernink suffered a moderately sprained left ankle. He will miss today's game.
"He was our catalyst on defense," Runk said. "No question, that injury hurts us."
Bill Tierney, Princeton: "I like Carolina because of their speed. Towson has players just as big and as athletic, but North Carolina's speed will be too much of a factor."
* Dave Cottle, Loyola: "I'm picking North Carolina. Towson has a strong midfield, but North Carolina has the strongest midfield in the country. North Carolina also plays great defense; they mix it and slide well."
* Tony Seaman, Johns Hopkins -- "Towson State is riding high, but North Carolina has too much depth at midfield. Tar Heels midfielder Jim Buczek is the fastest midfielder in lacrosse, and North Carolina has 10 or 11 other middies that can run with him. They just keep coming at you. If Towson can get a lead and zone, they can make it close. But North Carolina is a better team. I think North Carolina will win."
* Tom Hayes, Rutgers: "It's pick 'em time. Anything can happen in a one-game setting. Obviously, North Carolina has more depth and overall team speed, and the Tar Heels should get the nod. But Towson has some great athletes, and if they can get a lead and slow it down, they can pull this off. Remember, they have already beaten three teams that were supposed to beat them."
* Roy Simmons Jr., Syracuse: "North Carolina hustles for every ground ball, and they have a lot of depth at midfield. They are playing very well, and they're going to be tough to beat on Monday."
* Dick Edell, Maryland: "I've probably seen North Carolina mor than anybody else. They play a lot of people and have more depth than Towson has. They also have a lot of experience and been through a similar tournament like this when they won the ACC title. North Carolina hasn't played their best game yet."