SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- No longer is Towson State trying to rid itself of an inferiority complex in lacrosse. No longer are the Tigers struggling for an identity.
In the space of the NCAA tournament's 13 days, No. 11 Towson struck down three higher-seeded teams and gave a commendable account of itself against a fourth. It was unheralded Towson against No. 6 Virginia, No. 3 Princeton, No. 7 Maryland and, finally, No. 1 North Carolina.
Only against the top-seeded Tar Heels did the Tigers (12-4) come up short. They lost to undefeated (16-0) North Carolina, 18-13, yesterday in the championship game before 8,293 in the Carrier Dome, but not before giving the Tar Heels a scare.
The Tigers drew within a goal at 13-12 midway through the fourth period. The impetus for that was their spate of five unanswered goals in the third quarter.
"This puts Towson on the map," said goalie Rich Betcher, a transfer from Nassau (N.Y.) Community College who played at Ward Melville High School in Coram, N.Y. "A lot of players from my high school will look at Towson now instead of Johns Hopkins if they're considering colleges outside of New York."
Towson's objectives were to make the 12-team tournament and to demonstrate it belongs among the nation's top teams.
"Our primary goal was to gain respect," coach Carl Runk said. "I think we've done that."
Then, barely pausing for breath, Runk added, "We wanted to show that Towson is a great school with good academics, a lot of majors and a strong faculty, a school that's inexpensive and one that has a great lacrosse program that put its team in the championship final."
Rob Shek, the splendid midfielder who was one of three Tigers to score three goals, reveled in the prospect of increased recognition for Towson.
"The basketball team made the final 64, the baseball team did well and now us," Shek said. "This is an up and coming school."
The Tigers became only the second team seeded so low to reach the final. In 1988 No. 11 Cornell lost to Syracuse in the championship game.
During the regular season Towson's only three losses -- to Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Loyola -- were by a total of six goals. Yesterday, against the nation's No. 1 team, Towson bowed by five.
"They had too much depth," Runk said. "They swarmed, staying on us all day. It was like a beehive. They're one of the best at storming ground balls we've faced in a long time. They were on us relentlessly, constantly badgering.
"It took its toll. Our kids were tired."
North Carolina coach Dave Klarmann saw the game the same way Runk did.
"We had the fresh legs," Klarmann said. "It's not shooting ability or stickwork. It's numbers. We use an awful lot of guys. We had enough to win at the end."
Towson made its move early in the second half. Down 11-4, the Tigers scored five straight goals, two by John Blatchley, to trim North Carolina's lead to 11-9 late in the third quarter.
The Tar Heels broke that dry spell, but Towson pulled within one at 12-11 on Blatchley's third goal and again at 13-12 on Doug Sharretts' score with 8:40 left in the game.
"We did that on emotion," Runk said. "We've done it all year."
"We knew we weren't out of it at halftime," Shek said. "We remembered we were ahead of Loyola 8-1 and got beat."
At halftime, Runk told his club to "chip away," to attempt to control the ball and give the harried defense some relief. Runk used only four defensemen, rotating them.
Andy Piazza, Carolina's goalie, watched with growing concern as Towson came back.
"We never had counted them out," Piazza said. "I tried to forget about their last goal and focus on stopping the next shot. I tried to pump up the defense -- 'We'll get 'em the next time down.' "
The Tar Heels then launched their own streak, scoring five unanswered goals, each by a different player. In a matter of a few minutes, the game was over.
"We can play on adrenalin," Runk said. "But there's only so much there."
When the Tigers reached down at the end, there wasn't any there.