Preston: Maryland men's lacrosse team couldn't overcome talent drain in final four loss to Duke

The Maryland men’s lacrosse team failed to defend its national championship, losing, 13-8, to Duke in an NCAA Division I semifinal Saturday at Gillette Stadium.

Except for a few brief periods, the No. 4-seeded Blue Devils controlled the game, especially after a superior first quarter. But it still was a strong season for the Terps and John Tillman.

Tillman, in his eighth year as Maryland’s head coach, got as much out of this group as possible. Even if the top-seeded Terps (14-4) had won, they would have faced another uphill battle Monday in the title game against No. 3-seeded Yale (16-3).

It would have been a quick turnaround and to win, teams are required to have an abundance of depth. That was a major problem for Maryland this season.

Here was the top one: The Terps lost too much talent from last season’s team. They lost their starting attack, which included Colin Heacock, Dylan Maltz and Tewaaraton Award winner Matt Rambo, who was the best at his position in the college game last season.

They also lost shutdown defenseman Tim Muller and their top two short stick midfielders, Isaiah Davis-Allen and Nick Manis.

The Terps couldn’t overcome the talent drain.

“Last year’s team had such an alpha-male mentality and just a confidence that I never felt like at times the moment was too big,” said Tillman, who is 110-33 at Maryland. “I certainly never mentioned it to those guys, but felt like for some of our guys, they were — especially our short sticks, they were younger this year and I felt like we looked like the more inexperienced team early.”

Opposing teams had started to zero in on Maryland’s defensive weaknesses in the midfield by isolating those players either from the wings or behind the goal. Duke did it again Saturday as freshman midfielder Nakeie Montgomery scored three goals and fellow middie Brad Smith had two assists.

Maryland couldn’t hide some of its liabilities in the midfield. Worse yet, Maryland couldn’t match up with Duke’s individual stars, and few can.

Duke likes to match up their star players in one-on-one situations, and most of the time the Blue Devils win those battles. There is no Muller to go against Justin Guterding, Duke’s starting attackman who had three goals and three assists Saturday.

Maryland was and has been lucky to have goalie Dan Morris, who finished with 14 saves. He actually saved their season nearly two weeks ago with another strong effort against Robert Morris.

This was basically a rebuilding season for Maryland and if a team can make it to the final four while in that phase, that’s even more promising. The Terps managed wins against Notre Dame, North Carolina, Penn State, Rutgers and Johns Hopkins.

They lost in the Big Ten championship to Johns Hopkins, but there is no shame in losing to an archrival, and in the toughest conference in college lacrosse.

The Terps exceeded reasonable expectations. One of the new faces on defense included Jesse Bernhardt in his first season as coordinator.

On offense, the Terps averaged 11.67 goals a game in 2018 but few opposing teams feared them. They had senior midfielder Connor Kelly, who pumped in 46 goals and added 36 assists this season. But the other top players included sophomore attackman Jared Bernhardt and freshman attackmen Logan Wisnauskas and Bubba Fairman.

They’re going to be good players, but they aren’t complete yet. Only Kelly was a multiple threat and he played injured throughout the second half of the season.

Lacrosse prides itself on having parity and there have been a lot of programs that have emerged through the years, such as Denver, Albany, Marquette, Rutgers, Penn State and even Ohio State.

The mainstays are still there — Virginia, Hopkins, Cornell and Duke. But none of them have had the recent staying power of Maryland.

Under Tillman, the Terps have been to the final four seven of the last eight years, including three straight trips to the championship game. They were trying to become the first champions to repeat since Duke in 2013 and 2014.

That’s impressive. That’s downright dominating. This year, the Terps just didn’t have enough. Their defense looked lost at times Saturday and appeared tired midway through the fourth quarter.

“They have six really good players and we know we had to slide early,” Tillman said. “We had young short sticks, so we have to slide and support them. We had some miscommunication early and we were late. We knew how dynamic they were, and we just couldn’t figure it out.”

In the past, it was always the Terps who physically wore down other teams and forced them to surrender late in games. This year, though, was different. Tillman got as much as he could out of this team until there was nothing left.

Now, it’s time to load up again.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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