After Maryland's draining and exhilarating overtime win over Brown in the semifinal of the NCAA Tournament, the Terrapins find themselves in a familiar place: the national title game. After Maryland's regular season win over Navy in mid-April, I wrote a column explaining why Maryland could win its first national championship since SNL premiered on television. Before the Terps could get to the title game, they had to get past Brown first. And what a game it was.
The contest's first 30 minutes was one of if not the most exciting halves of lacrosse in recent memory for Maryland men's lacrosse. This was a back-and-forth battle from the start.
Maryland's defense came into the game allowing just 7.7 goals per game, a mark that gave them the nation's fourth-ranked scoring defense. Brown's top-scoring offense had eight goals by halftime. The Terps took a 9-8 lead into the break and stretched the lead to three entering the fourth quarter, but Brown scored four goals in the final 6:13 to tie the game. All of the momentum was going Brown's way. The Terps could have fallen apart, but they didn't.
The Bears won a faceoff and had a chance to go ahead in the final minute, but the Terps got it back. They had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but couldn't get a good look. Then came sudden death overtime.
Four minutes. Win or go home. Maryland was losing the faceoff battle by a 20-11 margin when sophomore Will Bonaparte stepped into the faceoff circle. After blowing a four goal lead in the fourth quarter, the Terps could have fallen apart in overtime, but they didn't.
The ball bounced into the Maryland third. Brown could have taken possession and scored with its powerful offense. The Terps could have fallen apart, but they didn't.
Matt Dunn scooped up the ground ball in traffic and helped clear the ball.
Then this happened:
Maryland is the top-overall seed in the tournament. The Terps were supposed to win this game, but it wasn't easy. It took grit, guts, and determination. They controlled almost the entire third quarter, but Brown fought back with everything it had in the final 15 minutes. In the end, Maryland came away with the win in an instant classic that fans of the sport will remember for decades.
Maryland (17-2) is the number one overall seed for a reason. The Terrapins have a great chance to win the national title -- for the first time since Jaws was released in theaters-- for the same reasons that they won this game. Let's go down the list:
Balanced offense? You bet. Lars Tiffany, the head coach of Brown, told me on Thursday that Maryland is just as dangerous offensively as it is defensively.
"Their offense presents some significant challenges with a one-two punch, literally the one-two punch with numbers 1 and 2. You surround them with phenomenal midfielders and a finisher in 25...They do it with a patience and a poise that is uncharacteristic of 18-21 year olds. The decision-making they have is phenomenal."
Matt Rambo leads an attack that includes Colin Heacock and Bryan Cole. All three players were named All-Americans this season. Lars' words were prescient considering that the literal 1-2 punch of Rambo and Heacock delivered the win to Maryland as Rambo found an open Heacock for the game-winning goal in overtime. Rambo had one goal and a career-high five assists. Heacock had three goals and an assist. They were simply outstanding on Saturday evening. These two are a major reason why Maryland is on the doorstep of a national title.
A stout defense? The Terps have that in spades. Maryland starts out with a pair of two-time All-Americans in senior goalie Kyle Bernlohr and senior defender Matt Dunn. Tim Muller and Greg Danseglio were named All-Americans this season as well. This defense routinely shuts down top-10 offenses. Their dominance throughout the season, and their success against the nation's top-scoring offense in Brown, has put Maryland one win away from a national championship.
Depth? Maryland's got that too. The second midfield line nicknamed the "Gold Gang" has been big for Maryland all season long. That line stepped up again on Saturday. The Terrapins had a whopping nine different goal scorers against Brown. Bryan Cole, Nick Manis and Pat Young didn't score goals, but they all registered assists. The Terps aren't here without contributions from those players.
The Terps have been in this position before, with the opportunity to win a national championship staring them in the face. Maryland has played in eight national title games since the Terrapins won it all in 1975. They've returned to College Park empty-handed each time.
The players and staff won't say it and perhaps they don't even recognize it, but there's a different energy with this year's squad. They certainly seem to be peaking at the right time. Maryland head coach John Tillman said that's critical. "It's not necessarily the best team in February, it's the team that plays best at the end of the year."
Tillman said that the Terps were honored to be in the title game. "I don't ever take that for granted. There's a lot of great coaches and great players that never get here and that will never be lost on me." While they're happy to be there, the Terps know that just making it to the national championship game isn't the goal.
Maryland isn't content with just being here in this moment; on the precipice of a championship. 41 years is a long time to wait. This is a special team. A powerful, balanced offense with fantastic depth and an incredibly talented and fundamentally sound defense anchored by a pair of two-time All-Americans.
Eight times. Forty-one years. Bernlohr told me earlier this week that this team, and this program, is sick of losing in the title game. This will be Maryland's fourth title game under Tillman, and he echoed that very same sentiment.
"You don't come to Maryland to play in the championship. You come to Maryland to win the championship."