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Syracuse Lacrosse vs. UNC: Friday Night Lax Preview

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The Syracuse Orange take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The regular season matchup between these two programs was highlighted by a physical, chippy game. I would expect nothing less on Friday in this old school rivalry.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC Tournament kicks off on Friday when the Duke Blue Devils and Notre Dame Fighting Irish take the early game at 5:30 while the Syracuse Orange and North Carolina Tar Heels have the 8:00 start. We are in the golden era of ACC lacrosse right now. This is the greatest lacrosse grouping ever assembled in a conference and has produced some amazing games. It is entirely possible that this tournament is just a preview of the Championship Weekend. Personally, I am giddy thinking about this weekend's matchups so take advantage of the great lacrosse that is awaiting us.

For me, the UNC-SU game is the most compelling matchup or potential matchup of this tournament. Prior to this season, we really hadn't seen that intensity that the old school matchups between these two teams seemed to feature. However that was not the case this year. Two weeks ago when UNC and SU faced off, it was a very physical game from the start. Unfortunately emotions bubbled over in the fourth quarter. As Hakeem Lecky drove to the net and scored, UNC defenseman Austin Pifani laid Lecky out on the crease with what appeared to be a cross check. Before getting off of him Pifani gave Lecky a second, albeit lighter, shove to the chest. Once on his feet Pifani seemed to step on Lecky. As players rushed in, Kevin Rice had some words and LSM Ryan Kilpatrick head-butted Rice in the helmet. In the end, both Lecky and Pifani served one minute, non-releasable, unnecessary roughness penalties. The only thing I saw Lecky do was hold on to Pifani's leg as he was standing on him, and at the risk of sounding like a homer, I was a bit confounded on why Lecky received a penalty. I didn't have a problem with the initial hit; late in the game, it was a physical matchup, fine. The nonsense afterwards showed tremendous immaturity, especially from Kilpatrick, a captain for the Tar Heels. AND ON ACC SPORTSMANSHIP WEEK NO LESS!!!!

I was very happy to watch UNC lose this past weekend so that we could get, what should be, an awesome rematch between these two teams. Whatever bad blood that was lost over the 17 years while this rivalry sat idle has certainly returned to a significant degree.

In the all-time series, Syracuse still leads 12-7, but this will be just the third game between the two programs in the last 19 years. Obviously, SU lost the regular season matchup 18-15 two weeks ago. The Tar Heels got off to a quick 5-0 start, but down by seven goals in the third quarter the Orange used a late game push to hold UNC scoreless in the final 9:17 of the game but fell just short.

Here are some notes for Friday's game:

1.     Clears - UNC has one of the best riding attack lines in the country. Jimmy Bitter, Joey Sankey, and Luke Goldstock are aggressive and more noticeably, they are relentless. SU successfully cleared the ball 12 times out of 14 attempts. Although Syracuse holds a .905 clearing percentage, the fourth best in the country, UNC opponents have been averaging an .848 clearing percentage. The Tar Heels have been causing the eighth most turnovers in division I this year with the attack trio making 14 caused turnovers.

2.     Goalie Play & Missed Shots - The Orange have the fifth highest shooting percentage in the nation at .349. That being said, in the first quarter against UNC the Orange missed the net on a number of crease-shots. Adding to the troubles, Kieran Burke made eight saves in the first quarter, which really boosted his confidence. On the other side of the field, Bobby Wardwell was pulled in the third quarter of the UNC game in favor of Warren Hill. Wardwell wasn't playing terribly, but it seemed like he was having a bit of trouble tracking the low shots. He is going to have to be big in this game. Hill looked good in his time in net against UNC, but it was obvious that the defensive communication took a hit with Wardwell out.

3.     Attack Lines - The trio of Sankey, Goldstock and Bitter have produced 103 goals. All three UNC attackmen currently have 50+ points, something no other ACC team in can say. Syracuse has to cover Goldstock better off-ball. UNC likes to play a two man pick game behind the net. That ball carrier drives up the box from behind the net, draws a slide into a double team and looks to dump it to the open attackman. Guarding these three will certainly be a challenge again. The Syracuse attack is notably one of the best in college lacrosse, and although UNC's attack is more productive, SU's attack line may be just slightly better. That being said, I haven't seen the same flow from that line in recent games that it exhibited early on in the season; it's more of a feeling than anything quantifiable. Part of the problem may be Randy Staats being a little rusty coming off of that leg injury, but also Kevin Rice was tied up against Notre Dame and North Carolina. The UNC defense led by LSM Ryan Kilpatrick and long-pole Austin Pifani played superb against the Orange. The way to beat this defense is not through iso dodges, but through quick, crisp passing. The SU midfield had nine goals in the last matchup, leaving Dylan Donahue to bridge the gap with five goals (Rice had one). I would like to see both Rice and Staats get more production this time around against the Tar Heels, but facing such a staunch defense, SU may have to lean on its midfielders once again. Watch for Nicky Galasso to have another big game against his former team, and if Henry Schoonmaker plays he will need to get more involved as well. This is a very physical defense, just ask Matt Kavanagh who got put into the pipe last in Notre Dame's win over UNC, so the offense will need to keep their heads on a swivel.

4.     Penalties - SU took five penalties against the Tar Heels last game. The Orange has a .706 kill percentage this year and only allowed one extra man goal against UNC. The Syracuse man-up offense is the fifth best in the country and went 2-4 two weeks ago against UNC. Extra-man goals will be big if SU hopes to stay with North Carolina. Due to the late game antics in the last matchup, I wouldn't be surprised if the referees call this one tight.

5.     Faceoffs - Ben Williams took the second most faceoff attempts of any SU player in a game in the loss to UNC. Although he lost the last two, crucial faceoffs, Williams took 21 wins against the Tar Heels. He caused North Carolina to get a 30 second faceoff violation in the first half, but in the second half he took a 30 second violation himself. Possessions will be the key to this game. UNC is a team that can stranglehold an opponent through possessions, therefore faceoffs will take an elevated importance. Due to the second half play, in which North Carolina won 10 of 17 faceoffs, I worry a little bit that UNC may have found a way to beat Williams.

The Orange will take on UNC on Friday at 8:00 pm at PPL Park. The game can be seen on ESPNU and heard on WKRL 100.9 FM. Of course you can also follow me @Orangelax for updates throughout the game.