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Cloutier’s Monster Day Powers UNC to First Final Since ’93

Chris Cloutier scored a record-tying nine goals as North Carolina rolled to its first NCAA final since 1993 with an 18-13 win over Loyola. (Kevin P. Tucker)

Maryland, North Carolina playing for long-awaited national championship

PHILADELPHIA — When North Carolina and Maryland punched their respective tickets to Monday’s NCAA lacrosse championship game (1 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN), they entered into a mutually beneficial contract.

One of their 20-plus-year title droughts is guaranteed to end.

Maryland hasn’t taken home the trophy since 1975, but it hasn’t been because of a lack of opportunities. The Terrapins reached the title game last season, when they fell to Denver. They advanced to the final game in 2011 and 2012 as well.

The pressure is certainly on the top-seeded Terps to not let history repeat itself.

“At a place like Maryland, and with the group that we have, I don’t think we should be settling for anything less than the highest height,” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “Why not us? Our guys know how they felt last season, and that’s motivation.”

And then there are the Tar Heels, the only unseeded team to make it to championship weekend. The Heels weren’t supposed to be here. They were supposed to be content with just making it to Philadelphia.

But North Carolina put on an offensive clinic in the first half of Saturday’s 18-13 win over Loyola (Maryland), and sophomore attackman Chris Cloutier broke a championship-weekend record with nine goals.

“There’s no pressure on these guys, none,” coach Joe Breschi said after the win. “We barely got in the tournament. It was a relief to get in, and now we have an opportunity to just let our hair down and play. That’s what these guys are doing.”

Steve Pontello, North Carolina’s senior attackman and leading scorer, said, “We have tremendous confidence. We believe in one another. Not many people thought we had a shot today or even get to the final four. But this team is special.”

The teams played once this season already, with Maryland claiming an 11-8 win in College Park on March 26. And the programs are familiar with each other, having both been members of the ACC until Maryland left for the Big Ten in 2013.

“That is a really, really good team who’s as hot as anybody,” Tillman said of North Carolina. “That’s a part of winning it. It’s not the best team in February, it’s the team that’s playing best at the end of the year. That team looked pretty darn good [on Saturday].”

Carolina will have a friendly reminder of just how long it has been since the program climbed the championship mountain.

The Tar Heels’ 1991 team will be honored at halftime of Monday’s game for the 25th anniversary of its national championship, and its members have been talking with this season’s team throughout the weekend.

“This run is for the alumni and friends of the program, for all those who have believed in us,” said Breschi, who was an assistant coach for the Heels during their last title run. “I’m so proud of the coaching staff for sticking to the philosophy and approach that we’ve had for the last eight years. And to be able to have those discussions with the alums and those guys to reach out to our players is fantastic.”

North Carolina entered the NCAA tournament as a top-eight seed in six of Breschi’s first seven seasons in charge, and yet this is the group that could give him his first championship.

“It’s about the young men who really have poured their hearts and soul into the season and are clearly playing for each other in a greater cause,” Breschi said. “And it’s just fun to watch. And basically I’m along for the ride, which is pretty cool.”

North Carolina was able to contain Loyola’s talented duo of Pat Spencer and Zach Herreweyers in the semifinal, but the challenge of defending Maryland is much more complex.

The Terrapins have been lauded all season for their balance, and it was on display in their 15-14 overtime win over Brown as nine players scored goals. But the Tar Heels also showed off on Saturday, with Cloutier and faceoff specialist Patrick Kelly combining for what seemed like a never-ending run of goals.

When the dust settles at Lincoln Financial Field on Monday, one team will have the proverbial title monkey off its back while the other will cling to hope for next season.

By Sam Strong ESPN Sports Writer