Sophomore attacker Hannah Leubecker took to the eight-meter for No. 2 seed Maryland women’s lacrosse’s eighth such attempt with just five seconds remaining in the first half of play against No. 7 seed Michigan.
Her shot from the left side lacked velocity, but it trickled into the top right corner for Maryland’s 12th goal of the half. It marked a fitting finish to a dominant first half from the Terps, one in which they matched their goals per game average.
Maryland had been the one taking all the punches throughout the year en route to a lackluster 7-5 record, but the first half saw them inflict the pain this time around.
Although they took their foot off the gas a bit down the stretch in the second half, the strong showing in the opening 30 minutes of postseason play rewarded the Terps with enough of a cushion to churn out a 16-13 victory.
“I thought our sideline was great, the energy was contagious and everyone came on the field just fired up,” head coach Cathy Reese said. “Tonight for us was kind of a tale of two halves ... we need to tighten up on one end of the field and then finish on the other.”
The second of three first round matchups in the Big Ten tournament kicked off at Panzer Stadium between two teams searching for an emphatic start to its postseason schedule.
Goaltender Emily Sterling held strong in the opening possessions versus the Wolverines, but it was two turnovers (one forced) that gave the Terrapins a window of opportunity to finally transition into its offense.
After midfielder Grace Griffin failed to convert on the free position, Michigan attacker Nadine Stewart drew first blood as she raced past defender Maddie Sanchez for the first goal of the contest.
It didn’t take long for the Terps to answer, however, as attacker Hannah Leubecker, fresh off her All-Big Ten First Team recognition earlier in the day, scored her first career postseason goal on a second free position attempt for Maryland.
Then, off of defender Lizzie Colson’s 300th career draw control, attacker Catie May used her patented wheel route to score off of the dish from Griffin.
Michigan responded to tie the game on a free position chance of their own, but attacker Brindi Griffin broke the tie with a wrap around from behind the net before Leubecker thrust in a beautiful wrist shot through coverage to make it 4-2.
A fifth score by Maryland was taken away after attacker Libby May’s follow-through was deemed a yellow card offense at the midway point of the half. Initiating a woman-down situation, Sterling and the defense stood their ground, eventually leading to May earning back her goal four minutes later with a cut up the middle.
The scoring run continued for the Terps, as a free position conversion from Grace Griffin preceded a low angled snipe from Leubecker, capping off the sophomore’s hat trick.
Leubecker earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors for her two-game series versus Michigan back in late February. Two months later, and she continued punishing the Wolverines defense as she scored goal number four with 8:36 left in the half and five in the final five seconds for good measure.
Maryland coasted the final 20 minutes of the half thanks to a 10-1 run. Six different Terps found the back of the net as Maryland produced its highest-scoring half on the year and matched its goals per game average in just 30 minutes of play.
“I thought the first half of lacrosse for us was the best we played all season,” Reese said.
“That’s what we’ve been looking to do all season and that’s what we’ve been working towards,” Leubecker added.
But the question had to be asked. Could Maryland finish the way they started?
The Terps have been marred by inconsistency from game to game and play to play all season long. They have fluctuated above and below a .400 shooting percentage and have seen dips in competitiveness on defense and sloppiness in transition.
Maryland hadn’t been up by double digits all year and this was the perfect test of mental toughness for Reese’s squad in trying to get her team to play full throttle for a full 60 minutes.
On the first possession, Brindi Griffin found Leubecker to make it 13-3 and enforce a running clock situation just 50 seconds in, but Michigan bounced back nicely.
A four-goal run made it a six-goal game and newly subbed in goaltender Mariah Sweeney made five saves to grant some life for the Wolverines.
Midfielder Shaylan Ahearn scored via another free position — the team’s sixth such score — but attacker Molly Garrett brought it back to a six-goal difference two minutes later.
Michigan refused to quit, with Garrett once again scoring following a Maryland score. It was a sidearm score from Grace Griffin that made it a seven-goal game before Garrett cut it back down to six.
With Maryland being continuously unsuccessful on the offensive end, Michigan seemed to be gearing for more. But two unforced turnovers from the Wolverines proved costly as attacker Hannah Warther pushed the score back to a six-goal lead with 7:46 remaining.
Michigan outscored Maryland rather significantly in the second half (10-4), but in the end the first half lead the Terps built was just too much for the Wolverines to overcome as Maryland moved on to the semi-finals of the Big Ten tournament.
They will await the winner of No. 3 Johns Hopkins vs. No. 6 Penn State.
Three things to know
1. The young Terps came to play. After just getting through six games last season, Maryland’s crop of talented sophomores had never experienced postseason play before. That didn’t seem to phase them, however, as they were the main catalysts in the Terps’ dominant victory.
Libby May and Leubecker each collected first-half hat tricks to put an exclamation point on a top to bottom first half from the Terrapins. They finished with three and six goals, respectively. On defense, Sterling held her ground in the net as she compiled a .350 save percentage.
“We knew we needed to gain experience as we went through this year and the fact that these guys can step up on this stage ... our young guns out there I thought they did a really good job tonight,” Reese said.
2. Maryland became complacent in the second half. Within the first minute of the second half, the Terps initiated a running clock — the first such occasion for them this season. It seemed to be a runaway victory for the Terrapins after a dominant first half, but per usual on the year, Maryland fell back into bad habits and allowed Michigan to creep closer and closer. The pattern of inconsistency reemerged, as Maryland seemed complacent down the stretch.
“The difference between the first and second half was just execution,” Libby May said. “We just have to have that mental discipline to do that for a full 60 minutes.”
3. 24 hours until the semi-finals. It’s a turnaround that is familiar to some, but for the sophomores and freshmen on Reese’s unit, the change of pace will be another obstacle to mount. A third of the job is done with two more games separating Maryland hoisting the Big Ten tournament title. Reminding the newcomers of that will be crucial in preparing for the intensity of postseason play.