No. 3-seed Maryland men’s lacrosse entered its first-round matchup in the Big Ten Tournament against No. 6-seed Rutgers with multiple concerns.
The Terps have been inconsistent, particularly on the offensive end, throughout the entire season, and All-Big Ten junior defenseman Ajax Zappitello, who has started in all 12 of his appearances, was out with an injury.
With its Big Ten life on the line, Maryland rode its star players to a comfortable 14-11 victory over the Scarlet Knights to advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Junior attackman Daniel Kelly and freshman attackman Braden Erksa carried the offensive load from the get-go, combing for three goals and five assists in the first half, but it was graduate defenseman Brett Makar who stole the show.
He has not scored in over a year, but with the lights shining bright and Zappitello sidelined, Makar stepped up.
Junior midfielder Jack Koras caused a turnover with 1:05 remaining in the second quarter and allowed Maryland to run in transition. Makar abandoned the defensive half of the field and trailed Koras down the field. The defenseman received the ball almost immediately after passing the 50-yard line and whipped the ball at senior goalie Kyle Mullin without hesitation.
The ball soared over Mullin’s head and into the net, marking Makar’s first goal of the season and second of his career. This warranted an outburst from Maryland’s bench, as players stormed the field to greet Makar.
“Kind of just had an opportunity to take a good shot, and kind of just was able to hit the net,” Makar said. “Kind of a juice play for us. Definitely got excited. I think I wore my emotions for sure. Got to kind of keep that in check, but just an exciting play for me, especially to be able to do that in Maryland Stadium.”
The excessive celebration resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Terps, but it did not matter, as Rutgers could not climb out of the three-goal hole Makar created in the second quarter.
The Terps set up a rematch with their in-state rivals, Johns Hopkins, in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals on Thursday.
Rutgers won the opening faceoff, but an initial save from freshman goalie Brain Ruppel transferred possession to the Terps.
Senior midfielder Kyle Long sat behind the cage on Maryland’s first possession, waiting for an opening. Right on cue, Junior attackman Daniel Kelly maneuvered through Rutgers’ defense, as multiple Terps screened his immediate defender. With room to operate, Kelly received the ball on the goal’s doorstep and scored the first goal of the game.
Rutgers junior midfielder Jack Aimone, who tallied two goals and one assist against the Terps two weeks ago, countered Kelly’s score, roping around the cage for an unassisted goal.
Maryland had a response, though, rattling off a 3-0 run. Junior midfielder Jack Koras and Kelly were responsible for the first two, scoring within three minutes of each other, and then senior attackman Daniel Maltz capped off the run with a laser from eight yards out as the first-quarter clock expired.
The second quarter got off to a blazing start. Aimone scored two goals within a three minute span, but each was matched by a Terrapin score. Kelly tallied the first one, and then Maltz scored the second, finessing past two Rutgers defenders before bouncing the ball through Mullin’s legs.
After a six-minute intermission, the two offenses got right back at it, yet again trading two goals apiece.
The Terps entered halftime with a three-goal lead, refusing to let Rutgers gain any ground.
Unlike the second quarter, the third quarter produced minimal scoring. Maryland sophomore midfielder Dante Trader Jr. stormed down the field with 9:13 remaining on the third-quarter clock, and with the entire stadium expecting him to shoot, Trader dumped the ball off to Maltz, who scored one of the easiest shots of his career.
Junior attackman Owen Murphy, who has fizzled out of the rotation of late, made the most of his limited playing time, scoring his 15th goal of the season.
Rutgers rallied in the final period, but it was not enough to overcome its five-goal deficit. Maryland walked away with a convincing 14-11 win on Saturday night and advanced to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
Three things to know
1. Maryland’s starting attackmen dominated. Each of the Terps’ three starting attackmen — Erksa, Maltz and Kelly — carved up Rutgers’ defense on Saturday night and willed Maryland to victory. Erksa played the role of facilitator for most of the night, recording a career-high five assists to go along with one goal.
“This whole year I’ve kind of been trying to get better, one percent better everyday,” Erksa said. “Just going through this season, being more and more confident every day, you know, trying to play my best lacrosse, not only for myself, but for my teammates as well.”
Maltz and Kelly combined for seven goals and two assists. This is the best the unit has played all year, and it could not have come at a better time.
“We’re gonna need those guys,” head coach John Tillman said. “We just want them to be the best version of them this year.”
2. A similar story. Maryland and Rutgers met less than two weeks ago in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The Terps jumped out to an early lead in which they wouldn’t surrender, and fought off a fourth-quarter spark from Rutgers. Despite the change in scenery, Saturday night’s game played out in a nearly identical manner. The Terps held a three-goal lead that never felt like it was in jeopardy until the final 15 minutes, when Rutgers rallied for six goals.
3. A rematch of “The Rivalry” is on tap. Maryland’s regular-season finale did not go according to plan as it lost to Johns Hopkins for the first time since 2019. The Terps were forced to watch the Blue Jays rip away the Big Ten regular-season title and hoist the wooden crab trophy, which is given to the annual winner of “The Rivalry.” The Terps won’t have to wait until next year to get their revenge, though, as they can end Johns Hopkins’ Big Ten Tournament championship hopes on Thursday.