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NCAA Tournament national semifinal preview: No. 1-seed Maryland men’s lacrosse vs. No. 5-seed Princeton

The Terps will face off against the Tigers with a spot in the national championship game on the line.

Photo courtesy of Zach Bland/Maryland Athletics.

Top-seeded Maryland men’s lacrosse is back in East Hartford, Connecticut, and will play on Championship Weekend for the second consecutive year and 28th time overall. The Terps enter the weekend as overwhelming favorites to be the last team standing, but to make that a reality they will have to win two games in three days against some of the best teams in the sport.

“We’re obviously very excited to have our program and our school and our team be [a] part of championship weekend. Always a special opportunity,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said.

“We’ve worked all year for these moments, and [we’re] just trying to take advantage of this opportunity and [there’s not] a better group than what we have to do it with,” senior defenseman Brett Makar added. “We’re really excited for the opportunity.”

Saturday’s semifinal matchup between Maryland and Princeton is a matchup that isn’t unusual to see this late in the season. The programs have met five times in the NCAA tournament — twice in the national championship game and three times in the quarterfinals. Maryland’s sole postseason win against the Tigers came in the 2006 NCAA quarterfinals, and the Terps also came out victorious in the teams’ regular season meeting in February.

Maryland is 16-0 for the first time in school history and can tie the 2016 Terps’ school record of 17 wins in a single season with a victory on Saturday.

The winner will play either Rutgers or Cornell for the national championship on Monday. The Scarlet Knights and Big Red are set to kick off Saturday’s action at noon.

Game information

Date/Time: Saturday, May 28, approx. 2:30 p.m.

Location: Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium (East Hartford, Conn.)

TV: ESPN2

Streaming: WatchESPN

What happened last time

The Terps and Tigers met earlier this season, a five-goal Maryland victory on Feb. 26.

Princeton never let Maryland pull away despite only winning nine of the game’s 29 faceoffs. The Tigers had to rely solely on senior faceoff specialist Jack-Henry Vara because of injuries to both sophomore Tyler Sandoval (their primary faceoff option) and freshman Koby Ginder.

The Terps scored twice in the game’s first minute, first from graduate midfielder Jonathan Donville and then just seconds later from junior faceoff specialist Luke Wierman. Donville finished with four goals and fifth-year attacker Logan Wisnauskas added four tallies as well.

Junior midfielder Sam English kept Princeton within striking distance with four goals of his own, and back-to-back goals by the Tigers brought Maryland’s lead down to three halfway through the fourth quarter. But, tallies by junior attacker Daniel Maltz and junior midfielder Jack Brennan sealed a 15-10 win for the Terps.

Maryland was especially active on defense, forcing 13 turnovers, three apiece from sophomore defenseman Ajax Zappitello and graduate defenseman Matt Rahill. On the other end, senior goalie Erik Peters was a key factor in Princeton’s ability to hang around, making 19 saves and keeping the Tigers in the game in one of his best performances all year.

“This team is a lot better than the first time we played and we’re gonna have to play our best game of the year to come out with a win,” Tillman said.

What’s happened since

Both teams entered the NCAA tournament as seeded teams after impressive regular seasons. The Terps were given the No. 1 seed and the Tigers were given the No. 5 seed.

After blowing past Vermont in the first round for the largest NCAA tournament win in program history, Maryland dethroned Virginia, the two-time reigning national champions, with a commanding 18-9 victory in Columbus, Ohio. The Terps’ defense was outstanding as usual, holding Virginia’s stars to little production. In fact, Zappitello had one more point than Cavaliers star and Tewaaraton Award finalist Connor Shellenberger, who he was often assigned to throughout the game and held scoreless. Sophomore attacker Owen Murphy led the way with four goals and Wisnauskas and fifth-year midfielder Anthony DeMaio followed with hat tricks.

“​​We’re not there yet. And I think that we all know what the job is and we just got to finish that job,” DeMaio said after the Terps’ win over Virginia.

The Tigers, on the other hand, have also collected a string of impressive wins since the teams’ matchup in late February. In the regular season, they defeated four teams that were seeded in the NCAA tournament: Georgetown, Rutgers, Penn and Brown. A pair of losses at the end of the season forced Princeton out of qualifying for the Ivy League tournament, but the Tigers earned the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament nonetheless.

Princeton impressively handled its first-round game against a solid Boston University squad, holding the Terriers to only five goals and putting up 12 of its own for the program’s first NCAA tournament win since 2009.

That win set up a rematch in the quarterfinals with conference foe Yale, which knocked off the Tigers on Mar. 26. Princeton fell behind after allowing three goals in the game’s first five minutes, but a subsequent 7-0 run put the Tigers ahead and they never relinquished the lead. Nine Tigers scored goals and their defense played well, holding Matt Brandau, who has the second-most points of any player in the nation, to just one goal and one assist. Princeton held on to defeat Yale, 14-10, advancing to Championship Weekend for the first time in 18 years.

“It’s a really special moment for our program, our alumni, you know, the university. So we’re really thrilled,” Princeton head coach Matt Madalon said. “We’re very much looking forward to the weekend.”

Three things to watch

1. Short-stick defensive midfielders. Saturday’s game will feature some of the best “D-middies” the game has to offer. Maryland had three short-stick defensive midfielders tabbed as All-Americans with graduate Roman Puglise earning a spot on the First Team and fifth-years Bubba Fairman and Jake Higgins earning honorable mentions. Princeton’s Beau Pederson was also named an Honorable Mention All-American. Junior Jake Stevens, a versatile midfielder that sometimes runs with the defense, was a Second Team All-Ivy League selection, and senior Luke Crimmins has blossomed in his first season at SSDM.

“It should be a great game with both [teams] with great defensive midfield units,” Madalon said. “I think both offensive groups have some speed and power so those guys will really be put to the test on both teams.”

2. The Terps are playing in the second semifinal again. John Tillman has led the Terps to nine Final Fours in his tenure at Maryland, and he has played in the second semifinal game in every single one. Only one team in the last 10 seasons has won the national championship after advancing from the second semifinal, and that was Maryland’s 2017 squad.

“If you asked any coach, ‘would you like to play the first game or second game?’ You’d always take the first game, but we obviously haven’t been given that choice,” Tillman said. “You get what you get. You control what you can control. And this is what we’ve been given. So we’re going to make the best of our situation that we can.”

3. More history for Logan Wisnauskas? Just a year ago, Jared Bernhardt ended his career with 202 career goals and 99 points in his final season, both Maryland records. Now, Wisnauskas — who already broke Bernhardt’s career points record — has an opportunity to continue to etch his name in the Maryland men’s lacrosse record books. He currently sits at 199 career goals, just one away from becoming the sixth player in NCAA men’s lacrosse history to score 200 and three away from tying the Maryland record. He also has 95 points this season, meaning that he needs five points to break Bernhardt’s single-season points record and become the first Terp to reach the 100-point threshold. He is averaging nearly 5.94 points per game and has registered at least four in every game this season.