By virtue of having a higher seed, sixth-seeded Notre Dame was considered the home team in Saturday's NCAA tournament semifinal against seventh-seeded Maryland and wore its white jerseys at M&T Bank Stadium. But with the Terps playing about 45 minutes away from their campus in College Park, the stadium had a decided "Fear the Turtle" vibe to it, and the feeling was not lost on Fighting Irish coach Kevin Corrigan.
"We were up at Hofstra last week [for the quarterfinals], and I think there were 37 people cheering for us in a sellout crowd of 13,000," Corrigan quipped, referring to fans pulling for Albany. "I wanted to come to the press conference afterwards and say I apologize to all those people who wanted to see Albany here right now because it was clear that there weren't a lot of people rooting for us. We kind of just kept that mentality this week. Quite honestly, it's kind of funny. I read The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun today, and I think they talked more about the Duke-Maryland matchup than they did the Maryland-Notre Dame matchup, and I said, 'OK, that's fine with us.' We like being those guys.'"
Notre Dame (12-5) will make its second appearance in a title game in five years after defeating Maryland, 11-6. A month ago, the Terps had tagged the Fighting Irish with a 12-8 loss on April 19 that nearly ended Notre Dame's season except that the team captured the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and earned the league's automatic qualifier for the NCAA postseason.
"I think each one of those games, quite honestly, has been really important for us to learn from," Corrigan said of the Fighting Irish's five losses. "We learned from the Syracuse game and beat them the second time. We learned from the Maryland game and beat them the second time. We learned from that slow-down game with Penn State to be able to play a 6-5 game with Maryland [in the ACC tournament], but we also learned from the Virginia game and some of those to be able to play an 18-17 game with Army and find a way to win that one. So I think the whole trip kind of makes us who we are today."
Circling back to "Three Things to Watch" …
1) Turnovers hound Maryland. One of the better teams in Division I at protecting the ball at 13.4 turnovers per game, the Terps (13-4) picked a bad time to suddenly be generous. They gave away the ball a season-worst 19 times, which included season-worst five failed clears. Eight of their turnovers occurred in the first quarter, which contributed to Notre Dame jumping out to a 4-2 lead in that period.
"I think the first quarter, a lot of that was self-inflicted," Maryland coach John Tillman said. "We turned the ball over eight times in the first quarter, and it was a little different with a turnover each time. … Sometimes today, we got away from some of the things we wanted to do and the things that we practiced. It was just one thing here and one thing there, but collectively when you add all those things up, it really kills your time of possession, it kills your flow, and I thought we put ourselves behind the 8-ball."
2) Faceoffs don't hurt – or help – Maryland. Junior Charlie Raffa extended his season-long prowess against Notre Dame, winning 11-of-13 faceoffs (84.6 percent) and collecting a game-high six ground balls. In three meetings with Notre Dame, Raffa has won 41-of-50 draws (82.0 percent) and 21 ground balls. Raffa left in the third quarter, however, after re-aggravating his nagging right knee, and sophomore Jon Garino replaced him, winning 4-of-8 faceoffs (50.0 percent) and picking up two ground balls. Tillman said it was a no-brainer to sit Raffa for Garino.
"We have to look at the young guy's long-term health and what's in his best interests, and sometimes we have to save these guys from themselves," Tillman said. "I'm not going to risk one guy's future for a lacrosse game, and I know our training staff wouldn't either. All that being said, I thought Jon Garino did a really nice job for us. He came in and won some faceoffs."
3) Conor Kelly lifts Notre Dame. The junior goalkeeper had a huge hand in the win for the Fighting Irish, making a game-high 14 saves and outdueling Maryland senior and first-team All-American Niko Amato (10 stops). Kelly stoned senior attackman Mike Chanenchuk, junior attackman Jay Carlson (St. Paul's) and freshman attackman Connor Cannizzaro on high-percentage chances, and he has surrendered just 23 goals and made 40 saves in three meetings with the Terps.
"I felt like I was seeing the ball well," said Kelly, who lost his job in an 8-7 loss to Penn State – the team's second game of the season. "I thought I saw the ball well against them the last time. Playing a team three times is tough, but you also get to see their shooters three times. So I thought I got a good read on their releases."