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Maryland women’s lacrosse used 1st-half defense, 2nd-half scoring to pull away from Denver

It was a two-goal game early in the second half, but the top-seeded Terps easily advanced in the NCAA Tournament.

Maryland women’s lacrosse Megan Taylor Photo by Maryland Athletics

Sunday’s 15-4 win over Denver started just like any other game for Maryland women’s lacrosse. The Terps scored the first four goals in less than 10 minutes, and it seemed as though a blowout was in the cards.

But it wouldn’t come that easy for the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament against a top-25 team like the Pioneers. After Megan Whittle scored at the 20:38 mark, the Terrapins were kept out of the opposing cage and off of the scoreboard for the remainder of the half.

“We don’t like to have scoring droughts ever, of any amount of minutes,” Maryland head coach Cathy Reese said after the game. “But 20 was a long time.”

Despite being blanked for more than half of the 30-minute period, the Terps remained ahead for the entirety of the game. That was all due to their defense, anchored by junior goalie Megan Taylor.

The Big Ten Goalie of the Year recorded six saves and surrendered just two goals in the first half. On the day, the junior had 12 saves to just four goals allowed for a .750 save percentage, making it her best game of the year on the biggest stage thus far.

“They were really fast,” Denver head coach Liza Kelly said about Maryland’s defense. “Their goalie had a great game. She made some really big saves and I think it gave them momentum at different times.”

After Denver scored with just 25 seconds left remaining in the first half, the Terrapins held a 4-2 lead heading into the break. It was one of their poorest shooting performances for any half this year—they took 15 shots and scored just four times—and it allowed the Pioneers to stick around longer than anyone would’ve predicted.

Coming out of halftime, though, Whittle knew what she had to do.

“As a senior attacker and as a captain down there, sometimes I need to be the spark,” she said.

The Tewaaraton Award finalist kicked off the second-half scoring with consecutive goals in just over two minutes en route to a six-goal afternoon. The senior now has 80 on the season, a new career high. Whittle’s second goal of the day officially placed her in sole possession of second place in NCAA history for most career goals, passing Gail Cummings of Temple. It’s an incredible achievement for Whittle (who’s now at 294 career goals), although her priorities are in a different place.

“Personally, that was a goal of mine when I committed to Maryland when I was 15,” she continued. “I wanted to do that. It’s cool that it’s done, but it’s cooler that we’re moving on to the next round.”

The Pioneers had one final push in them after Whittle’s scores made it 6-2. Eliza Radochonski answered with a goal of her own, and two minutes later, a controversial call went Denver’s way. The shot clock was prematurely reset, and what should have been a Pioneers turnover suddenly resulted in a free-position opportunity. They would convert the scoring chance, and it was back to a two-goal game with 21:34 to go.

“It is what it is,” Cathy Reese said. “It’s not like we have to reinvent the wheel here and try to do anything crazy. We just need to get back to us and just execute.”

They did just that, as being on the wrong end of some misfortune proved to be the spark that the team needed. From that point on, Maryland scored nine unanswered goals to close out the game, completely exposing Denver’s defense time and time again.

‘You play against a team like Maryland, sometimes it’s a matter of when they figure out what you’re doing against them,” Kelly said. “I think by the second half they got a couple quick ones and I think they figured out where to beat the zone.”

All the while, the defense completely stymied the Pioneers offense. Outside of that free-position shot that never should’ve been, the back unit for Maryland held strong and kept Denver out of the back of the cage.

“I think we were all relaxed and ready to have fun out there,” sophomore Lizzie Colson said. “I think we’re working really well together. Julia Braig was talking through everything really well. I think we had each other’s backs. I think that was the difference.”

In the NCAA Quarterfinals, of course, the competition will be stiffer. The Terrapins will face off against former Maryland legend Cindy Timchal and the Navy Midshipmen on Saturday at noon ET. Both teams made the Final Four last season, and Maryland will need a strong performance if it wants to be the one returning.