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Terps pull away in second half to win Big Ten

Special Contribution to So Much Sports Baltimore
By: James Crabtree-Hannigan

As is typical for the Maryland Terrapins women’s lacrosse team, they got off to fast starts when the played Northwestern in the first half of Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament Championship game in College Park.

However, down the stretch of the first half, the Terps let the Wildcats back into the game and held just a 6-4 lead at the break. But Maryland did not make the same mistake in the second half. They kept their foot on the gas and outscored Northwestern 8-2 after intermission to win, 14-6, and stay undefeated in 2017 while claiming their second consecutive Big Ten Tournament championship.

It was a far more convincing victory than the team’s 19-16 semifinal win over Johns Hopkins on Friday.

“What a difference for us from Friday night,” Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. “We played really well defensively today, we really buckled down.”

The improved defense combined with another balanced scoring attack, led by four goals from Tournament MVP Caroline Steele and hat tricks from midfielder Zoe Stukenberg and attacker Kali Hartshorn, to move the Terps to a perfect 19-0 heading into next week’s NCAA Tournament.

“We want to be so well-balanced on attack that against any type of defense we may see, we’re ready to step up,” Reese said. “And we’ve seen that all year long.”

Despite taking a lopsided defeat, Northwestern outshot the Terps on Sunday, 32-30, a result of the Wildcats’ owning lots of first-half possession and an offensive strategy that “generates a lot of shots,” Reese said.

Northwestern began the game with a possession that lasted nearly three minutes. But the Wildcats struggled to create good scoring chances against the Terps.

Maryland’s defense was rock-solid, harassing the Wildcats every step of the way as they attempted to get an open look. And when Northwestern did find a way into a shooting position, Maryland goalkeeper Megan Taylor was up to the task.

Taylor had 10 first-half saves, including four in the first 15 minutes as the Terps opened up a 4-0 lead. She finished with 16 stops.

“Taylor had an outstanding game as always,” Stukenberg said. “She saved our butt on a couple where we got lucky.”

Those moments were rare Sunday, however, as most of Taylor’s saves were straightforward, stopping low shots she easily saw into her net.

“She was on fire today,” Reese said. “Our defense gave her the shots that she wanted to see, and when she’s on it starts everything for us.”

Steele opened scoring about five minutes after the opening whistle, scoring from close range off a pass from attacker Kali Hartshorn.

The Terps doubled their lead four minutes later, when attacker Brindi Griffin charged off a free position, juking around defenders and faking out Wildcats goalkeeper Mallory Weisse, eventually sneaking it past Weisse with a right-handed shot.

That, however, would be Maryland’s only free position goal of the first half, despite countless chances.

The Wildcats constantly fouled Maryland in the first 30 minutes, committing 22 fouls before halftime. After Griffin’s score, though, the Terps missed their next five free position shots, struggling to get their shots on target to challenge Weisse.

“[The] first half felt, like, just a little stagnant, a little messy,” Stukenberg said. “Thing weren’t flowing.”

Those struggles allowed the Wildcats back into the game late in the first half.

After goals from Hartshorn and attacker Taylor Hensh put Maryland up 4-0 about 10 minutes into the game, Northwestern answered.

The Wildcats took advantage of occasional Maryland defensive lapses and using impressive individual efforts — a behind-the-back score from attacker Liza Elder, tenacious runs from attacker Christina Esposito — to prevent the Terps from running away with the championship early.

Esposito had a goal and an assist in that first-half burst and she added another dish after halftime, but it was a relatively quiet night for the Wildcats star who entered Sunday leading the team with 43 goals and 54 points.

“[Defender Nadine Hadnagy] played Esposito really well today,” Reese said. “[She is] the core anchor of our defense with that.”

Hadnagy, a Terwaaraton Award nominee, credited her teammates with helping her prevent Esposito from making an impact.

“Every time [Esposito] dodged, I always had a slide there, so I always knew I could pressure out,” Hadnagy said. “Someone would have my back.”

Maryland opened the second half with five consecutive goals, turning the 6-4 lead into an 11-4 advantage in under five minutes.

Stukenberg scored with an assist to midfielder Caroline Wennen, who had three assists Sunday, attacker Megan Whittle notched her only goal of the day by outsprinting the Wildcats defense in transition, and Steele had a trio of scores in less than three minutes.

“We just needed to be a little more patient,” Reese said of what changed in the second half.

Northwestern tried to mount another comeback, scoring two goals to make it 11-6 with 14:30 to play, but Maryland added three more goals from that point to secure an easy win, running the length of the field to mob Taylor and the defense as the final buzzer sounded.

“Everyone did a good job today of buckling down and just being better,” Stukengberg said. “We needed to be better and I thought we did that today.”

Maryland will likely be the No. 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, which begins next weekend.

“This group went through 17 games and they did what they needed to do to come out 17-0. We went through the Big Ten season, earned the one-seed in the Big Ten Championship, we won that and now we’re looking at an NCAA Championship,” Reese said.

“To be able to come out and earn the one-seed is just really a testament to our season so far.”

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