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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Maryland men’s lacrosse joins conversation of best team ever by holding off Cornell, 9-7, in NCAA final | COMMENTARY

EAST HARTFORD, CONN. — The University of Maryland solidified its claim as one of the best men’s lacrosse teams in modern history by defeating No. 7 seed Cornell, 9-7, in the NCAA Division I championship game played before a crowd of 22,184 at the Pratt and Whitney Stadium on Rentschler Field on Monday.

The No. 1 ranked Terps (18-0) had been dominant all season and played only four games where they had won by fewer than four goals, but there weren’t many who thought that they could dismantle the field the same way in the postseason. They did, except for when they started to wilt in the heat midway through the third quarter of the championship game. The Terps once led 9-2 and led by five goals at the half and six after three quarters on their way to becoming the first national champion to go undefeated since Virginia in 2006.

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Maryland accomplished several missions this spring. The Terps avenged last year’s 17-16 championship game loss to Virginia played here last season and have won 35 of their last 36 games. Since the middle of the season, Maryland has been compared with two great teams, both unbeaten: the 1990 Syracuse squad and the 2006 Virginia Cavaliers. The championship is the fourth in Terps history.

“All I wanted to do was see these kids not crying this year,” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “Last year, to see the tears, I feel so bad for guys like Nick Grill or Jared Bernhardt and all the seniors last year that didn’t get this chance. Our guys were focused all year long and I give them a lot of credit.

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“It’s nice to see guys smiling at the end considering where we were 364 days ago. We had so many guys working together, so many guys willing to sacrifice. We expected it to be hard and we kind of hung on, kind of grinded it out. But I am happy for our state, our program and our school.”

It’s actually hard to say if the 1990 Orange squad that averaged nearly 21 goals per game, the 17-0 Cavaliers from 2006 or this down-right dominating Terps is the greatest, but there could be no conversations until Maryland won the national championship.

Well, let the conversations begin.

Current Maryland players like attackman Logan Wisnauskas, midfielder Anthony DeMaio, defensemen Brett Makar, Ajax Zappitello and goalie Logan McNaney have now cemented their legacies with players from other great teams. The win also erased some bad memories for Maryland coach John Tillman, who won a national title in 2017 but lost five other championship games since becoming head coach in 2011.

Cornell has now lost five straight championship games and hasn’t won a national title since legendary former coach Richie Moran, a Terps standout who died in April at age 85, led the program to its second straight undefeated season in 1977. The Big Red, however, peaked in the postseason and were expected to provide Maryland a stiff challenge, especially after defeating Rutgers, 17-10, in the semifinals, but Maryland shut down their offense for most of the game.

Wisnauskas had two goals and two and two assists and finished with 103 points for the season, breaking the Terps’ record of 99 set by Bernhardt last season. DeMaio finished with four goals and an assist for Maryland, which had assists on all nine goals. McNaney had 17 saves, including 10 in the first half and a pair late to keep Cornell from making the score any closer than two. He was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

Cornell made it close with three straight goals to open the fourth by attackmen Michael Long and Spencer Wirtheim and midfielder Hugh Kelleher, with Witheim’s coming with 7:27 left in the fourth quarter to pull Cornell within 9-6. Attackman John Piatelli scored with 35.3 seconds left to cut Maryland’s lead to 9-7, but the Terps won the ensuing faceoff and were able to hang on and hold the ball before the celebration began at midfield.

“I am so proud of how this group scratched and clawed and how they got better every day,” said Cornell coach Connor Buczek, who went with a 10-man ride late in the game to force several Maryland turnovers. “The fourth quarter was one of our best quarters of the year. I am proud of the way we continued to fight; the clock just ran out of time.

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“They do a lot of things great on tape, but we thought we had the ability to beat that team. With that being said, they were awesome. They managed our offense really well. I thought our defense played as well as they possibly could.”

DeMaio said he wasn’t concerned about the second-half rally.

“Obviously, when you lose a game there are a lot of things you need to work on, but we realized we never played the perfect game, so we just kept working,” he said. “But we always continued to work, and I think we are just a bunch of selfless guys willing to do whatever.”

Cornell took a 1-0 lead on a shot by sophomore attackman C.J. Kirst that McNaney should have saved with 7:28 left in the first quarter. The slow tempo favored the Big Red, but it was the only time McNaney had a setback in the first quarter. He made point-blank saves on shots from attackman Billy Coyle and two from Kirst.

Kirst was the Big Red’s offense in the first half and scored off a spin move just inside the restraining line with 11:49 left in the second quarter to cut Maryland’s lead to 5-2. Cornell outshot Maryland in the first half but the Terps were more opportunistic. That’ll happen when a team has players like Wisnauskas and DeMaio.

Wisnauskas, on a feed from middie Jack Brennan, tied the score at 1 with 5:47 left in the first. DeMaio scored nearly two minutes later to make it 2-1 and then again with 1:12 on an extra-man opportunity to push Maryland’s lead to 4-1 by the end of the quarter.

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Long pole middie Owen Prybylski scored off a fast break on an assist with DeMaio as Maryland took a 5-1 advantage early in the second. DeMaio and Wisnauskas scored goals in the final five minutes of the second quarter, giving Maryland a 7-2 halftime lead.

Maryland had eight turnovers in the first half and the Big Red won six of 11 faceoffs, which kept them within striking distance before their late rally fell a little bit short. McNaney was outstanding from start to finish, not just in this game but throughout the tournament.

“I try to go into every game with the same mentality, but I knew this week was going to be different because of the heat and hydration,” said McNaney. “I knew I had to step it up.”

Makar summed it up best.

“This is an indescribable feeling,” he said. “There was plenty of emotion, plenty of guys feeling good about themselves. I can’t wait to get back to College Park and celebrate.”


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