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Just short again. Terps drop 11-6 decision to Notre Dame in NCAA Semifinal

Perhaps the stage was too grand for Maryland's talented freshmen. Or perhaps Notre Dame is simply playing too well right now. Whatever the reason, the Terps saw their 39 year championship drought continue in Saturday's 11-6 loss.

Pregame at the NCAA men's lacrosse Final Four
Pregame at the NCAA men's lacrosse Final Four

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish took the Maryland Terrapins to task in every phase of the game in their 11-6 win Saturday in the NCAA men's lacrosse semifinal in Baltimore. So where was the Maryland team we had seen over its last game and a half? Here are some of my thoughts together with some from Maryland head coach John Tillman.

First quarter jitters

Though Maryland's upper classmen had been on this stage before, the young Terrapins' attack had not. And it showed. Charlie Raffa committed his only turnover of the game after controlling the opening draw but the Terps' defense responded stoutly and got the ball back. However, not only did the Terrapins turn the ball back to the Irish once they cleared the ball to the offensive end, they did it repeatedly. Maryland finished the quarter with eight turnovers including one on each of their first six possessions.

Notre Dame capitalized twice on those turnovers and before the game was six and a half minutes old, Maryland found themselves facing a two goal deficit. The Terps bounced back to tie the game behind goals from Joe LoCascio and Connor Cannizzaro in what would be their last hurrah. The turnovers would continue, the Irish would continue to capitalize and, in a critical sequence, would score twice in the last sixteen seconds of the first quarter to take a 4-2 lead.

Negating 6 of 7

It's perfectly legitimate to ask, "How can your faceoff man win six of seven faceoffs in the first quarter and yet you find yourselves trailing by two goals?" Two things are true about Raffa's performance Saturday. First, he looked less mobile than he had in past games so prehaps his injury was hampering his ability to attack. Second, it was clear from the outset that the Irish planned to go after him in much the same way they had in the ACC Championship game - essentially conceding the faceoff but using long poles to try to force him to turn the ball over.

The strategy worked on the first faceoff of the game as Raffa did, indeed, turn the ball over. Maryland's defense stepped up and forced a turnover of their own. However, as noted above, here is where the situation became jittery. Tillman described it this way:

"Well, I think first quarter, think a lot of that is just self‑inflicted. We turned the ball over I think eight times in the first quarter, and it was a little different turnover each time. It was maybe just a different situation with a different player. I think our guys were really amped up, and it's hard when you have ‑‑ you have to have a defensive mentality and then you have to have an offensive mentality.  So defensively you can have that fiery speech, but offensively you've got to make sure that you get into a flow and you play and you play, as John Wooden would say, you play fast but not in a hurry. Sometimes today we got away from some of the things that we wanted to do and some of the things that we practiced; and again, it was just one thing here or one thing there, but collectively when you add all those things up, it really kills your time of possession.  It kills your flow and I thought we put ourselves behind the 8‑ball."

Though Raffa appeared to stress his injury late in the second quarter, and tried to continue to play, he took only the opening draw of the third quarter before leaving the game for good. John Garino stepped in and, though not as dominant as Raffa's 11 for 13, he did help Maryland finish with a 21-15 edge in faceoffs. Of his decision to pull Raffa, Tillman said, "Yeah, it sounded like it got reaggravated right before halftime. Charlie was a warrior. He wanted to go back in, felt like he could do it, but after consulting with the trainers, I wasn't comfortable and the trainers weren't comfortable with kind of what we were seeing, and we have to look at the young guy's long‑term health and what's in his best interest, and sometimes we have to save these guys from themselves. I'm not going to risk one guy's future for a lacrosse game, and I know our training staff wouldn't, either. All things being said, I thought Jon Garino did a really nice job for us, came in, won some face‑offs. Actually I think if his wings would have protected him a little bit more, we would have been fine there."

A question of shot selection

In their loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament, Maryland took 37 shots and managed only five goals. The pattern repeated Saturday with the Terps firing 38 shots and finding the net only six times. Tillman had this to say:

"Well, they certainly play great defense. They certainly always have. We felt like we got some decent looks; you know, 14 saves is pretty good. I still think we're a little bit stubborn with our shooting. We really talked about all week shooting the ball high, and that was one of the things we felt like we didn't do a good job of last time. I don't think we could have emphasized it more, and when we came out early and we just kind of got back to doing that, we talked about it, we practiced it, and funny things sometimes happen when you go into a game. Even though it's been part of the emphasis, you get in there and you just kind of go back to maybe some of the habits that you have, and obviously that's something that we're going to have to address and focus on. But we really feel like he was a better guy high than he was low, and again, we got some opportunities, and we still just didn't want to budge there."

By the time the Terps did start looking low,  Notre Dame goalie Conor Kelly had found his rhythm and was able to amass those fourteen saves.

On the Matt

Maryland's defense had no answer for Irish sophomore attackman, Matt Kavanaugh. Beginning in the ACC final where he scored four goals and added two assists, Kavanaugh has gotten on a late season roll. In the four games leading up to Saturday's game, including that ACC final, he had scored 11 goals and handed out 7 assists. Saturday, he had his way with every defense the Terrapins threw at him, scoring five and picking up two assists. Tillman said, "He's gotten better every game we've seen him, and he's gotten more confident. That's the type of performance you want out of a guy that's first, second‑team All‑American."

Hustle plays

This one's a bit more subtle. A look at the final stat sheet indicates that Notre Dame's 29 groundballs were merely two more than Maryland's 27 for the game. However, of the Terps' 27, six are credited to Raffa and two to Garino. Thus at least eight of Maryland's groundballs are part of their 15-6 edge in faceoffs. Notre Dame's faceoff men had two. Thus the true Fighting Irish edge was closer to 27-19 and for those who watched the game, this advantage likely feels more accurate. No one asked Tillman about this in his postgame press conference.

Still a great season

In reviewing Maryland's season, we need to remember that, given their youth, the expectations for this Terrapins' squad were quite low. The media picked them to finish last in the ACC. They won the regular season. They disappointed in the ACC Tournament but clearly lost to a team that has gotten themselves on a roll right to the NCAA championship game.

Thirteen wins and four losses is an enviable record for any team running the gamut of Maryland's schedule. And to repeat a phrase from my friend Arnie, "I'd rather reach the Final Four and lose than not reach the Final Four at all." Amen to that, Arnie. Amen to that.