At first, Kevin Corrigan tried to get his players off the field and into the locker room, where he could discuss all the areas they could still improve, as quickly as possible.
But the fans would not leave. They kept snapping pictures with the Irish, getting autographs and trading high-fives. So the Irish head coach smiled and took in the chaos.
In the span of 75 seconds Saturday, the record crowd of 4,522 at Arlotta Stadium went from desperate to delirious, as No. 1 Notre Dame scored three unanswered goals to rally past No. 2 North Carolina, 15-14, and clinch the ACC regular season title.
Junior attack Matt Kavanagh looks to pass during Notre Dame’s 15-14 win over No. 2 North Carolina on Saturday at Arlotta Stadium.
When the final horn sounded, that crowd stormed out onto the field, celebrating Notre Dame’s closest win in a season full of them.
“I don’t know if I can remember a game where there was less scripted action than that one,” Corrigan said. “You spend a lot of time working on some scripted things, and then you play a game like that and it’s all about guys making plays, both ways.
“That’s a tremendous lacrosse game, and that’s a really good team.”
In Notre Dame’s second 1-vs.-2 matchup of the year, the top-ranked squads were essentially even in most major categories; the Irish (9-1, 4-0 ACC) led shots, 48-46, and turnovers, 16-13, while the Tar Heels (12-2, 3-1) took faceoffs, 18-15, and saves, 11-9.
Neither team led by more than two goals at any point in the contest, and they were tied at the end of the first, second and third quarters.
But in the fourth period, North Carolina stonewalled Notre Dame’s offense and gradually gained an edge. Through the first 13 minutes of the final quarter, the Tar Heels outscored the Irish 3-1 and took a two-goal advantage.
“Our guys know that until the final horn blows, it’s not over,” Corrigan said. “We’ve won a lot of close games and a lot of last-second type games like that over the past few years, and they know, you just keep playing.”
With 1:26 left to play, junior attack Matt Kavanagh was doing just that, sprinting off a quick restart towards the goal with no defenders in his path. However, Tar Heels junior goalie Kieran Burke saved his shot.
Half a second later, though, North Carolina junior defenseman Evan Connell hit Kavanagh high and hard just outside the crease, sending him flying into Burke and knocking the net askew.
“I knew that they had to call something, because one minute I shot it, and the next thing I knew I was on my back with my legs up in the air,” Kavanagh said.
Connell was assessed a two-minute, non-releasable penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, and Notre Dame was playing a man-up for the rest of the game.
From there, the rally was on. Kavanagh scored nine seconds after the penalty to put Notre Dame within one, then sophomore midfielder Sergio Perkovic tied things up with 33 seconds left.
Sophomore midfielder P.J. Finley won the ensuing faceoff, and Corrigan called a timeout with 20 seconds remaining to strategize his team’s final possession.
“We drew up a play,” Kavanagh said. “It was supposed to go behind and then to Sergio, but they had good pressure behind, so we reversed it, and when it got to [graduate student midfielder Jim Marlatt], he made a great feed.”
Marlatt, who already had three assists on the day, including the last two for Notre Dame, found Kavanagh in the middle of the Tar Heel defense. Kavanagh turned and whipped a shot into the lower right corner of the net with 7.6 seconds left, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“They’re not afraid of the moment,” Corrigan said. “Those guys stepped up, and they have the wherewithal to know what a good risk is and what a bad risk is, but the courage to take the risk that needs to be taken at a time like that.”
After the Irish weathered one last shot attempt from North Carolina, they celebrated an undefeated conference run. And even though the ACC tournament and NCAA championships loom, Corrigan still took time to appreciate the win.
“I’m not going to worry about [the things we can do better] at the moment,” he said. “We’re going to enjoy the heck out of this moment and of this day, but tomorrow, we gotta get back to work.”
The top-ranked Irish play fourth-seeded, No. 6 Duke in the semifinals of the ACC tournament in Chester, Pennsylvania, on Friday.