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Maryland men’s lacrosse beats Penn State, 8-6, in Big Ten semifinals

This was arguably the team’s best defensive performance of the season.

NCAA Lacrosse: National Championship-North Carolina vs Maryland Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In a bout of defensive excellence, No. 1 Maryland beat No. 8 Penn State, 8-6, on Thursday to advance to the Big Ten Championship game.

Junior Connor Kelly finished the day with a game-high four goals and an assist, doing all of his scoring in the second half. Tim Rotanz added a pair, while Jared Bernhardt and Colin Heacock found the back of the net as well.

The Nittany Lions average more than 14 goals per contest, but scored just six against Dan Morris, who had arguably his best performance of the season between the pipes with 16 saves.

The Terps wasted no time testing the Nittany Lions, setting an early precedent with two unassisted strikes from Heacock and Rotanz.

Other than a rocket from Bernhardt to give Maryland an early 3-1 lead, Penn State’s defense stood tall against a Maryland attack that’s been surgical as of late. The unit contained the Terps’ offense to just nine shots in the first quarter, and from a scoring perspective removed Rambo from the game.

But as disruptive as Penn State’s defense was, Maryland’s was somehow even better.

The Nittany Lions converted just one goal on 12 shots in the first half, uncharacteristic for a team with the fifth highest scoring offense in the country. Held to zero goals in the second quarter, it was the first time all season the Nittany Lions were held scoreless for a quarter.

It came from a perfect mixture of aggressive man-to-man defense by Maryland’s D-poles and superb goalkeeping by Dan Morris, who registered seven saves in the first half.

But Jeff Tambroni’s squad came out of halftime with a purpose. A three-goal burst in the third off goals by Kevin Hill, Dan Craig and O’Keefe put Penn State right back in contention, cutting it to a one-goal game.

With Penn State threatening, Kelly stepped up and shouldered Maryland’s offense, scoring all four of Maryland’s second-half goals.

Penn State made a valiant two-goal run late, but it wasn’t enough to upset the top-seeded Terps.

Maryland will take on the winner of Ohio State and Johns Hopkins for the Big Ten Tournament title on Saturday.

Three Things to Know

1. Matt Rambo draws a lot of attention. The senior displayed why he’s so important to the offense, even if he’s not the one actually scoring. Rambo didn’t score and only recorded one assist, but his relentless attacking forced the Nittany Lions to pay attention to him. In the third quarter, Rambo faked a look at the goal which drew an extra defender, exposing a hole which Kelly was able to run through and eventually score. Rambo is the all-time points scorer for Maryland, but his selflessness helped the Terps nonetheless.

2. Connor Kelly showed his clutch gene. Kelly, now with 28 goals on the season, is the team’s second-leading scorer and just two goals behind Rambo. It’s good to see that when the team’s all-time points leader isn’t producing, Kelly is ready to step up big.

3. The defense, along with Dan Morris, locked down a well-oiled machine. Penn State’s starting attack of Mac O’Keefe, Grant Ament and Nick Aponte is as good as they come in college lacrosse. The defense allowed just two goals to freshman phenom O’Keefe, who came into the game with a whopping 46 goals on the season. Morris finished with 16 saves, and did so against an attack that’s been punishing goalkeepers all season long. This was Penn State’s lowest scoring output of the year, but that should come as no surprise considering Maryland’s elite defense.