Connor Mooney wasn’t supposed to be in this situation.
With his No. 12 Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team tied with No. 4 North Carolina with only 3 minutes, 18 seconds left in the Southern Showdown, the ball was in his stick and the game was on the line.
Usually this was Will Manny time, but the senior attacker was a no-go on Saturday with a thumb injury. So it was Mooney who was asked to notch the deciding goal for the Minutemen.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Mooney capitalized on his opportunity with an unassisted goal, putting UMass (2-0) ahead for good, 12-11, at Kennesaw State University’s KSU Stadium. The goal completed a comeback that saw the Minutemen trail by three heading into the fourth quarter.
Mooney’s game-winner was the capping of a line of four unanswered goals for the Minutemen in the game’s final frame.
Andrew Sokol began the four-goal stretch with a pair of goals early in the quarter, and then Grant Whiteway tied the game with 4:16 left.
Before the fourth quarter, UNC (1-1) was the aggressor. It led from the outset and extended its lead to three goals on three different occasions during the first three frames.
But UMass was able to come out with the victory and coach Greg Cannella credited his team’s fight and perseverance with the win.
“We were down pretty much the whole game until we go up right at the end of the game,” Cannella said in an interview with UMassAthletics.com. “So at any moment we could’ve cracked and our guys hung tough.”
The Minutemen also clamped down on defense in the fourth quarter, not allowing a single goal from the Tar Heels, who helped make the comeback possible.
UMass’ defense was led by redshirt freshman goalie Zachary Oliveri with his 18 saves.
Cannella credited Oliveri and the entire defense with an overall great performance.
Leading the offense for the Minutemen was Kyle Smith and Mooney, who each had a hat track and finished with four points overall. Sokol and Whiteway finished with two goals apiece.
Marcus Holman, Jimmy Bitter and Spencer Parks led the Tar Heels’ attack with two goals each.
UNC struck first with two goals 43 seconds apart early in the first quarter to take a 2-0 lead. The two teams went back and forth on the next four goals, giving the Tar Heels a 4-2 lead after the first quarter.
UMass’ Kyle Smith scored the first goal of the second quarter, which was assisted by Bobby Tyler at the 14:00 mark. Then UNC scored two straight goals to take a three-goal lead.
The Tar Heels took a 7-4 lead into halftime.
The Minutemen came out of the break with two straight goals by Smith and Whiteway, cutting the deficit to 7-6. The two teams traded off the next four goals and UNC scored the final two goals of the frame on goals by Spencer Parks and Marcus Holman to take an 11-8 lead into the final quarter.
But that was all of the scoring for the Tar Heels on Saturday.
After the game, Oliveri credited the entire team, especially the defense in front of him, with a resilient comeback effort.
“One thing coach said to us was, and he always says it, was never quit, and I think that was the topic today,” Oliveri told UMassAthletics.com. “I mean we never quit; Everyone kept fighting till the end. We were down the entire game.”
UMass found out before the game that Manny would be out for up to a month with a thumb injury, according to the WHMP UMass radio network.
Colin Fleming, who didn’t play last week with an injury, saw limited action against UNC.
Defenseman James Fahey was injured during the game, Cannella said after the game. Freshman Kyle Karaska played in his relief.
Cameron McDonough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Cam_McDonough.