John Tillman
John Tillman

North Carolina men’s lacrosse attackman Marcus Holman stepped into a small press room in the corner of Byrd Stadium on Saturday with a toothy grin on his face. He chuckled while walking past several media members and sat down in an empty chair to the left of his coach, Joe Breschi.

But before Holman could speak, a joyful Breschi hooked his left arm around the Baltimore native’s neck. The coach leaned toward Holman’s head, cuffed his right fist and gave Holman what a third-grader might call a “noogie.”

The playful jubilance wasn’t surprising. The No. 14 Tar Heels had just beaten the then-No. 1 Terrapins men’s lacrosse team, 10-8, in College Park. They earned a vital ACC victory over a top-ranked rival, and Holman notched a pair of goals while playing in his home state.

What was more telling, though, was that North Carolina played the game with the same mentality exhibited in that postgame press conference. The players stayed loose, cheering on their teammates and flying around the field with a sprightly enthusiasm.

In a matchup with the nation’s last unbeaten team, the Tar Heels competed as if they had nothing to lose.

“We just came in here, and we didn’t have any pressure. [The Terps] had all the pressure on their shoulders,” Holman said. “We were able to play loose and fast, and we’re going to continue to play that way.”

The difference in the teams’ respective mindsets was most evident while North Carolina went on a 3-0 run to end the first quarter. Overanxious Terps defenders pressed up on North Carolina attackmen Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter on multiple occasions, allowing the quick duo to cut past them into the middle of the field and find easy scoring opportunities.

The Tar Heels gained confidence with each goal, building a 5-2 lead after the first 15 minutes of play.

Their enthusiasm didn’t fade the rest of the way, either. And after North Carolina fended off the Terps’ comeback attempt to secure a statement victory, Breschi wasn’t going to underplay the importance of his team’s mentality while facing the country’s top-ranked squad.

“With all the crazy scores going on,we just said, ‘Look, keep your nose to the ground and keep plugging away,’” Breschi said. “Just to see their elation on the sidelines and the smile on their face makes coaching all worthwhile.”

But there wasn’t much elation on the opposite end of the field.

The Terps experienced uncharacteristic offensive struggles, and urging from the Byrd Stadium crowd couldn’t even help them gain momentum after a sluggish start. The Terps hadn’t given up more than two goals in the first quarter of any game before Saturday, and the team may have been a bit tense while facing its first significant deficit of the season.

“You can’t get it back all at once,” Terps coach John Tillman said. “Sometimes when it’s not going the way that you want, you get away from what you’ve been taught and what we emphasize.”

One loss won’t change the Terps’ approach, though. They’re still ingrained with what Tillman refers to as “the process” of building a successful season.

They have taken a look at the North Carolina game film just like they would after any other game. They’ll try to make improvements throughout the week in practice just like they would any other week.

The only difference might be that the loss adds newfound motivation.

“As important as this game was, it doesn’t make or break our whole season,” goaltender Niko Amato said. “I expect a more focused, competitive group of Terps to come to practice.”

Losing also provides the Terps — who slipped to No. 2 in the Inside Lacrosse national poll this week — with more teachable moments. Tillman and Amato both said they could learn from looking at the game film, and having shortcomings exposed on the field could mean greater improvements moving forward.

The pressure of upholding an unblemished record no longer lingers and the pressure that comes with the No. 1 ranking is gone. In coming weeks, the Terps could strive to emulate the Tar Heels’ loose-yet-motivated mindset from Saturday. After all, those qualities seemed to define the Terps’ play earlier in the year.

So they certainly could derive some positives from their first loss of the season. Still, the ultra-competitive Tillman had a firm answer Saturday when asked if he was a bit relieved that his team encountered a setback before the playoffs began.

“Nah,” the third-year coach said. “I would rather have a win and have some teachable moments that way.”