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Even in the NCAA Tournament, Maryland men’s lacrosse is still searching for consistency

Maryland has a team that can win it all. The problem is that team doesn’t always show up.

Maryland men’s lacrosse vs. Albany Lila Bromberg / Testudo Times

In the first half Sunday at Maryland Stadium, the cloudy weather was a surprisingly good indicator of the Terps’ chances against Robert Morris.

Maryland turned the ball over on two early possessions, a rare sight for a team that takes care of the ball as well as anyone in the country. Even the Terps’ first goal was more of a lucky break than a real offensive set. Defender Bryce Young whiffed on a transition pass and deflected the ball to Adam DiMillo, who finished off the slipshod possession with a goal. Maryland continued to struggle in offensive sets during the first half, with only one of its three goals coming in 6-on-6 play.

On the other side of the field, the results weren’t much better. Robert Morris took advantage of Maryland short-stick midfielders in the two-man game, continuing to attack from behind the goal. In a do-or-die situation, the Colonials had put together a near-perfect first half, and Maryland put together one of its worst. History was a possibility. No top seed had ever lost in the first round, and only two had failed to make the semifinals.

That all changed in the first four minutes of the second half. Seconds after Young overran a ground ball on a faceoff win to start the second half, Roman Puglise scored his first goal of the season. That ignited a spark, and Maryland scored three more to take its first lead since scoring the opening goal of the game. The Terps would never trail again, and could breathe a sigh of relief after it looked like the worst could happen.

“We mentioned that the first round for us has not always been pretty,” head coach John Tillman said after the game, a 14-11 win for Maryland. “In 2014 we had to come back against Cornell, in 2015 we had to come back against Yale, in ’16 (against Quinnipiac) we had a tough time in that one. Last year (against Bryant) wasn’t easy for us.”

Tillman knew his team had another tough opponent this year. There was some debate on whether Robert Morris deserved to be in the play-in game, and the Colonials had to beat Canisius on Wednesday just to get to Sunday. Tillman said everyone he talked to said glowing things about them, and their game film reflected that.

“They were exactly what we kind of expected,” Tillman said. “A real tough team, athletic, dangerous, skilled, very competitive and tough, it took everything we could to come back and get that win.”

Robert Morris proved it deserved better than playing the defending national champions in the first round, but the Colonials proved something about Maryland as well. The Terps have been inconsistent for most of this season, and it’s reasonable to think they could either outlast three more teams to win their second straight national title or fall short against Cornell next weekend.

As has been the case for much of the season, both Maryland men’s lacrosse teams were on display on Sunday. The one in the first half committed sloppy turnovers when it got the ball, allowed easy shots by Colonials dodgers, and needed an All-American level performance from Dan Morris just to be in the game at halftime. The one in the second half was locked in, controlled the faceoff dot to dominate possession, and came up with key plays on both ends of the field. The Terps’ Jekyll and Hyde nature also happened throughout Big Ten play.

In a question about the team’s faceoff unit, Tillman said something remarkably true about that group that could apply to his entire team as well. He said the team has confidence in them, but they’ve been a little inconsistent. However, when they’re good, they’re really good.

Maryland has the talent to win another national championship. Connor Kelly is one of the best offensive players in the country, and has a bevy of complementary scorers around him. The team has a strong defensive unit, with players like Bryce Young and Matt Neufeldt who have a knack for making plays at the right time, and Morris is as steady as they come in goal. It has a coach who’s guided the Terps to Championship Weekend time and time again before finally climbing the mountaintop last year.

All the ingredients are there. The only thing in the way is themselves. Championship teams usually get better as the season goes on. Maryland hasn’t hit that extra gear yet, but has another chance next weekend. In a year where there is no clear favorite, that could be the difference between hoisting the trophy or watching another team do the same.