The third-ranked Maryland Terrapins get to play for their third straight Atlantic Coast Conference men's lacrosse title tomorrow at M&T Bank Stadium against No. 1 Virginia, although the Terps had to do some heavy lifting last night to get there.
Unranked North Carolina, suffering through its second consecutive losing season, took control of the semifinal game early. But Maryland had the last word, as senior midfielder Xander Ritz took a feed on the left side of the crease from junior attackman Michael Phipps and scored with 1:25 left to lift the Terps to a come-from-behind 10-9 victory, before an announced crowd of 3,806.
The shot by Ritz completed a three-goal night for him and completed an outstanding comeback by Maryland, which trailed 6-1 at the half and fell behind 9-7, with 11:07 left in the game, before finishing with a 3-0 run to put away the Tar Heels.
The game-winner by Ritz marked Maryland's only lead of the night.
"You'd like to say this remarkable thing happened in the locker room, but what happened was our seniors stepped up," Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. "We didn't make any big adjustments. Our kids just played a lot better in the second half."
Cottle watched the Terps (9-3) shake off both the rust of a 10-day layoff and the inspired Tar Heels (4-10) by out-scoring Carolina 6-1 in the third quarter to change the game's momentum and tie the score at 7-7. He also got to see senior midfielder Brendan Healy come to life when Maryland badly needed a spark.
Healy, who came into the game in a season-long shooting slump with just seven goals, fired up Maryland by firing away successfully at Carolina junior goalie Trey Sheain in the pivotal third period.
After sophomore attackman Max Ritz opened the second-half scoring 50 seconds into the quarter, Healy had three goals in a span of 6:48 to cut the lead to 6-5. His last goal, a 12-yard runner, chased Sheain, who was replaced by freshman Grant Zimmerman.
"I needed that pretty badly. It's been a frustrating season for me," Healy said. "I knew it was going to come. It feels good to get that off my shoulders."
Zimmerman then surrendered goals to senior midfielder Bill McGlone and senior attackman Joe Walters - whose extra-man score was his only point of the night - before pushing the Tar Heels back in front early in the fourth period with a one-man clear and an assist to junior midfielder Ben Staines.
That gave Carolina an 8-7 lead with 12:55 to go, and the Tar Heels scored again on a high fadeaway shot by senior attackman Drew Habeck past Maryland junior goalie Harry Alford (14 saves).
But down the stretch, Maryland would not be denied. Ritz scored on a rebound with 8:08 left. McGlone made a 15-yarder with 4:33 to go. And after Ritz finished his hat trick, the Tar Heels missed the cage with two shots in the final 35 seconds.
"It's obviously a disheartening loss for our team. We couldn't come out in the third quarter and part of the fourth and sustain what we did in the first half," said Carolina coach John Haus, who has a 9-18 record over the past two seasons in Chapel Hill.
Maryland, which is angling for a top four seed in the NCAA tournament, now gets another crack at 12-0 Virginia, which pounded the Terps 15-5 in College Park four weeks ago.
North Carolina 4 2 1 2 - 9
Maryland 0 1 6 3 - 10
Goals: NC-Hunt 2, Burns 2, Wagner, Habeck, Staines, Tintle, McElduff; M- Healy 3, X. Ritz 3, McGlone 2, Walters, M. Ritz. Assists: NC-Link, Tintle, Burns, Zimmerman; M-Phipps 3, Healy 2, McGlone 2. Saves: NC-Shea 9, Zimmerman 3; M-Alford 14. A: 3,806.