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NCAA Tournament first round preview: Maryland women’s lacrosse vs. Drexel

Maryland defeated Drexel, 15-9, earlier in the season.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Following a 14-9 loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament final, Maryland women’s lacrosse is unseeded in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade.

The first half of the conference title game loss provided an entertaining offensive display. Attackers from both programs were consistently getting open looks around the cage, and their execution was nearly flawless.

The second half proved much more enjoyable for Northwestern than Maryland. Northwestern’s star attacker Hailey Rhatigan scored twice and goalkeeper Molly Laliberty made some key stops in the fourth quarter, preventing a Maryland comeback.

Maryland will now travel to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where it’ll take on Drexel in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Friday’s game begins at 5 p.m. and will be streamed on ESPN Plus.

What happened last time

The Terps handily beat the Dragons, 15-9, in their last matchup. The first half saw an explosion of offense from Maryland, mainly in the first quarter. It appeared as though Drexel wasn’t capable of handling the Terps’ speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball.

In the second quarter, the Dragons got themselves back to within striking distance. Their most potent offensive threat, Corinne Bednarik, capitalized twice in the period. It brought Maryland’s halftime lead to just four.

In the contest, the Terps shrugged off two separate Drexel runs. It highlighted their growing composure and poise as a team. Senior attackers Libby May and Hannah Leubecker also combined for 10 scores and did so in a myriad of ways, from eight-meter chances to fast breaks. Their scoring down the stretch was vital in the 15-9 victory.

What’s happened since

Maryland’s next match was arguably its best offensively, as it scored 15 goals against then-No. 7 Florida. Its defensive shortcomings required a comeback in the final frame, which was capped off by a last-minute go-ahead score from junior attacker Victoria Hensh.

The Terps dropped their next two to James Madison and Denver, respectively. Unlike the Florida game, Maryland couldn’t seem to get itself set on offense. The lack of ball movement and pace plagued them. However, the squad did start playing its best defense of the season. For six straight games, the Terps held their opponent to eight goals or less.

Meanwhile, Drexel only lost two more games for the rest of the regular season. Those losses came to Towson and Stony Brook. Against Stony Brook, the Dragons managed just 10 total shots and turned the ball over 15 times. In addition, they lost the draw control battle 17-5.

On the other hand, Drexel had some impressive wins. Its victory against then-No. 19 Johns Hopkins was its most imposing. In the contest, the Dragons had 33 shots. They also racked up 24 ground balls and earned 12 free-position shots.

Drexel lost in the Colonial Athletic Association final, 9-6, to Towson, tying its worst offensive output of the season. In the game, the Dragons had 12 fewer shots than the Tigers and managed to draw just one free-position opportunity.

Three things to watch

1. Shaylan Ahearn’s health. After the senior midfielder aggravated an ankle injury during the second quarter of the Big Ten championship game, the Terps’ performance on the draw control circle took a hit. When she returned part way through the fourth quarter, it was clear she wasn’t 100%.

On Tuesday, Ahearn said she “feels good and feels ready to go”. The recently-honored second-team All-American leads the Big Ten in draw controls and provides a steady presence on both sides of the ball.

2. Second-half output. In their last two matches against Rutgers and Northwestern, the Terps had lackluster second-half performances. Against the Scarlet Knights, the Terps were up 10-1 at the half, but lost the latter two frames 8-5. Against the Wildcats, Maryland tired out quickly, only winning five draw controls in the second half.

It will be essential for the Terps to play a full 60 minutes of lacrosse, especially in an NCAA Tournament game, where anything and everything can happen.

3. Depth pieces. As seen when Ahearn went out with an ankle injury, players like sophomore midfielder Hailey Russo and junior midfielder Shannon Smith had to take over her duties. In addition, Leubecker’s health — which has been spotty — will be important to note. When she was absent earlier in the season, Hensh filled in nicely. Even redshirt junior Kate Sites has flourished in her bench role, scoring four goals in the Big Ten Tournament.

At this point, the Terps’ starting lineup is mostly cemented, but injuries become more commonplace towards the end of a grueling season. As a result, every player on the roster must be ready to take advantage of the moment and the opportunity.