To UMBC women's lacrosse coach Kelly Berger, the first half of the season serves primarily as preparation for conference play and her young Retrievers showed Saturday that they've learned a lot.
After winning just three of their first eight games, the Retrievers opened the America East season with an 8-5 upset of No. 13 Albany, the defending conference champion, in a rain-soaked rematch of last year's conference final at UMBC Stadium.
Behind freshman Anna Barnett's stellar goalkeepingand smarter second-half decisions on offense, the Retrievers broke out of a 4-4 tie with three straight goals. Strong defense and some critical Barnett saves then kept the Great Danes at bay.
"I have to give all the credit to my defenders," said Barnett, who finished with nine saves in her first start. "They played amazing and my team just all together played really great. I wouldn't have been able to make the amount of saves that I made if they hadn't pushed low angle or stopped the ball."
The Great Danes, who were without three starters including two who suffered season-ending injuries, tied the game at 4 with two quick goals to open the second half. Barnett then saved the next three Albany shots on goal to turn the momentum.
UMBC took the lead for good when Kristen Bilney got the jump on a defender about seven meters out and slipped a low shot in the near corner with 17:03 to go as the rain picked up along with a UMBC offense that had struggled with shot placement early on. The sophomore Mount Hebron graduate scored again on a free-position shot and Lindsay Cox scored an unassisted goal for a 7-4 Retrievers lead with 13:07 to go.
After Albany's Rachael Burek and Cox traded goals to 8-5 with 10:33 remaining, the Retrievers (4-5) won the draw and held possession most of the next seven minutes. They turned the ball over twice in the final 3:48, but Barnett got it back both times with saves on two free-position attempts.
"I thought she made saves at critical times in the game," Albany coach John Battaglino said of Barnett. "There were a couple times when she could have allowed us to get a little bit and I thought she was outstanding a critical moments."
Barnett also had two key saves in the first half to keep the Great Danes (6-3) from rallying to tie after UMBC opened with a 3-0 lead. They cut it to one, but Abby Wilson scored on a feed from Alicia Krause 30 seconds before the half for 4-2 Retrievers lead.
Much of the halftime conversation in the UMBC locker room focused on shooting. In the first half, the Retrievers were 4-for-15. While Albany sophomore goalie Anna Berman made some nice saves, the Retrievers also shot a handful of close-range shots right at her.
"At first, we were shooting a lot high and we realized she was good high," Bilney said. "That was one of the changes we had to make as a team. We collectively said we have to ake her and shoot low. There were a bunch of shots (in the first half) right to her stick that could definitely have been put low and right around her."
In what has been an exceptionally close rivalry in recent seasons, the Great Danes lead the series 6-5. While Albany won the conference final last season, 11-4, the previous two regular-season games had been decided by a goal and UMBC won a conference tournament semifinal meeting, 11-9, in 2010.
"It's one of the biggest games of the season every year," Berger said. "Albany is a rival, they're in our conference and they're always a great team, so you can always expect two great teams to show up and I think they both did [Saturday]."
Albany 2 3 -- 5
UMBC 4 4 -- 8
Goals: A—Antelmi 2, Burek 2, Pollock; U—Bilney 3, Cox 2, Krause, Wilson, Errington. Assists: A—Antelmi, Eamer, Keggins, Parker; U—Coady, Cox, Krause. Saves: A—Berman 9, U—Barnett 9.