We’ve seen these teams play many times before and twice already in 2021, and we’re getting a third meeting between UNC and UVA to determine who punches their ticket to the national championship game.
Memorial Day Weekend is right around the corner, and that means the stakes can’t be higher in college lacrosse. One of the multiple tournaments that will conclude this weekend is men’s Division I, and we have some heavyweights set to compete in the Final Four.
UNC and UVA have a long, rich history against one another, and a new chapter will be written this weekend in the national semifinals. So, what can we expect from this massive matchup?
#1 UNC (12-2) vs. #4 UVA (12-4): NCAA DI Men’s Lacrosse Final Four Preview
For a third time this season, the North Carolina Tar Heels will face-off against the Virginia Cavaliers with a trip to the national championship game on the line. The Tar Heels won their first matchup against the Cavaliers all the way back in March, 16-13, while Virginia came out on top the second time, around toppling UNC, 18-16. It’s amazing how similar both of these teams play, which should make this game very enticing and difficult to predict. This contest could go either way. Both of these teams have the capability to bring home a national championship come Monday.
UNC vs. UVA: Path to the Semifinals
North Carolina secured the No. 1 seed in the tournament and had no issue dismantling Monmouth in the first round, 16-4. It advanced to play Rutgers in the second round in a game that came down to the wire. In one of the best showdowns of the year thus far, the Tar Heels emerged victorious in overtime when Connor McCarthy scored the game winner, edging out Rutgers, 12-11. Even though UNC was on the brink of losing this one, it played excellent lacrosse from start to finish. It was a perfect example of “iron sharpens iron.” The Tar Heels needed to face a true opponent before entering the semifinals, and Rutgers certainly put North Carolina to the test. It was a testament to how well the Tar Heels can overcome adversity when it matters most.
Virginia entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed, meaning it faced off against Bryant in the first round. The Bulldogs played excellent lacrosse from start to finish as they nearly walked away with the upset, falling just short, 13-11. While Virginia almost lost this game, I certainly don’t think the team played poorly. The truth of the matter is its defensive midfield just allowed too many shots. The team was lucky that senior goalie Alex Rode recorded a season-high 18 saves, securing the win for Virginia. Without Rode between the pipes, this game could have gone very differently. Many analysts had the Cavs losing their second-round game against Georgetown after their first-round scare, but that was far from the case. Virginia came out and played its best lacrosse all year, destroying Georgetown, 14-3.
Lack of Turnovers
UNC is third-best in the country in regards to turnovers as it’s only averaging 12 turnovers a game, and though UVA has been doing better with its turnovers recently, it currently sits at 33rd nationally, averaging 16 turnovers a game. Both of these offenses are electric and have no issue putting the ball in the back of the net, especially coming off turnovers. It will be crucial that both teams maintain possession and take smart shots. When it comes to caused turnovers, Virginia’s defense had 12 in its last game, and North Carolina had 13 against Rutgers. On the season, UVA ranks 13th in Division I, averaging nine per outing, while UNC is at 28th with eight a game. Neither team can afford to turn the ball over, particularly considering how dominant each teams’ offense is; every possession matters.
Capitalizing on Transitions
Turnovers lead to fast break goals, which has been where both of these teams have shined throughout this season. UNC currently has the best scoring offense in the country, averaging 16 goals a game, while UVA falls three spots lower than the Tar Heels nationally, averaging 15. You can guarantee that UNC or UVA will find the open man on a fast break and take a smart shot. Transition goals will play a huge factor as both teams play stellar defense when the ball is settled.
There is an argument to be made that UNC and UVA have the best midfield lines in all of college lacrosse this season. The battle in the midfield will play a major role in the result of this game. Both teams have PLL draft picks, with Dox Aitken on Virginia and Justin Anderson for North Carolina, who are playing out of their minds in the tournament. The midfielders will really determine how well each team does with turnovers and fast break goals. There isn’t a clear winner or loser at the midfield, which makes it difficult to determine who will come out on top.
Players to Watch
Alex Rode / Goalie
Alex Rode can show up when needed, which was shown during the Cavaliers’ national title run back in 2019 where he was awarded Most Outstanding Player. Considering he had 18 saves against Bryant, he has the potential to really put the team on his back when needed. He will face a lot of shots this game, and his ability to make saves when it matters most will be crucial in this one.
Connor Shellenberger / Midfield
The redshirt freshman has been terrifying defenses all year. He currently has 31 goals and 36 assists in 2021 and has performed at the same level during the tournament. Shellenberger currently has three goals and five assists against the Tar Heels this season, so it will be interesting to see what Coach Breschi throws at him this time around.
Chris Gray / Attack
The ACC Offensive Player of the Year has the opportunity to cement his name in history if he can continue his dominant run this season. Gray currently has seven goals and two assists against the Cavaliers this season but was held scoreless against Rutgers last week. Chris Gray is the kind of player who can make or break a game. I want to see how he will perform when it matters most.
Justin Anderson / Midfield
Justin Anderson popped off against Rutgers, recording a hat trick while only taking four shots all game. He also recorded three caused turnovers, which played a huge factor in the team’s victory. Anderson will need to push the tempo and stay on the field as much as he can. Anderson’s performance will be solely based on how often he is on the field, because he has proven that he can take the game into his hands in clutch moments.
Both UNC and UVA are playing elite-level lacrosse with very little holes in their game plans. At the end of the day, it will come down to who can make the fewest mistakes and who can capitalize on those errors.