PHILADELPHIA — A precious piece of the net he guarded with his body and his soul hung proudly from the back of North Carolina goalie Brian Balkam’s hat. The former Smithtown East star wore it well.
With his team down a man Monday, Balkam stopped a hard shot by Maryland sniper Connor Kelly 34 seconds into overtime. Less than two minutes later, Balkam was dogpiled by teammates after Chris Cloutier’s goal gave the Tar Heels a 14-13 victory for the program’s first NCAA title since 1991.
Part of the on-field celebration included lacrosse’s version of the net-cutting tradition at basketball’s Final Four, with the victorious goalie’s net being cut up and its pieces being divided among the players.
Balkam earned his piece of the net with that save on Kelly, his 13th of the game. It provided an enthralling ending to an eventful redshirt sophomore season in which he had some shaky moments, including a rough second half against Loyola on Saturday and a giveaway that led to a goal Monday.
“That’s us in a nutshell. It’s not always pretty,” North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. “But Brian stuck with it. He’s got great heart. We told him after the Loyola game, ‘You’ve got to step up your game.’ Just like anyone, if guys aren’t doing the job, we’ll replace them. He did a nice job of commanding respect from the defense.”
That respect grew exponentially after Balkam stopped Kelly, who had scored four goals. Especially given that the Terrapins had scored on three of five man-up situations.
“The guys in front of me rotated quick and gave up the shot I wanted to see. I was lucky to make the save,” Balkam said. “I knew we had struggled a little bit man-down. Usually that’s one of the strong points of our team. What better time to make a stop on man-down in overtime to win the national championship?”