COLLEGE PARK — Connor Kelly fueled the Maryland men's lacrosse team's start Sunday afternoon. So it seemed only natural that the reigning NCAA champion would turn to him in the end.
After having a hand in all five of the team's goals in the first half, the senior midfielder contributed to two of the top-ranked Terps' final three goals to help them avoid an upset and secure an 11-10 decision over No. 8 Rutgers before an announced 1,745 at Maryland Stadium.
Freshman midfielder Bubba Fairman scored three times and sophomore attackman Jared Bernhardt scored twice for Maryland, which improved to 10-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten. That's the 16th consecutive season of at least 10 victories, and the win gives the Terps a one-game lead over No. 14 Penn State (8-4, 2-1) and No. 4 Johns Hopkins (8-3, 2-1) in the race for the conference's regular-season championship and the top seed in the league tournament.
Maryland, which moved to the top of the rankings Monday, escaped a short-lived tenure there thanks to Kelly. With the Terps trailing 9-8 with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kelly drew enough attention from the Scarlet Knights defense to pass the ball to redshirt freshman midfielder Anthony DeMaio, whose shot from 12 yards up top tied the score at 9 with 4:41 remaining.
After senior midfielder Tim Rotanz scored from the right point 48 seconds later to give Maryland a 10-9 lead, Kelly needed just 32 seconds to drive the right alley and tuck his shot inside the left post for the eventual game-winner.
Afterward, Kelly, who had two goals and three assists in the first half en route to a game-high eight points on four goals and four assists, downplayed his heroics.
"I trust in Jared and [redshirt freshman attackman] Logan [Wisnauskas] and all those guys," he said when asked whether he felt a burden to lead the charge. "They help me out so much, and I help them. It's a give-take with all of us, and I trust them with anything, with the ball in their stick at any time."
Rutgers closed the gap to one by taking advantage of a failed clear and having junior midfielder Mark Christiano spring freshman attackman Tommy Coyne for a fast-break goal with 2:44 left in the fourth quarter.
But after the Scarlet Knights won the ensuing faceoff, Terps sophomore defenseman Jack Welding stripped redshirt senior midfielder Christian Mazzone on the doorstep as he turned to shoot, and Maryland ran out the last 60 seconds to cement the victory.
Kelly’s display helped overshadow one of Maryland’s poorest quarters during coach John Tillman’s career there. In the second quarter, the Scarlet Knights outscored the Terps 5-1, outshot them 15-1 won six of seven faceoffs, and enjoyed five extra-man chances — including a six-on-four opportunity.
"We had so many self-inflicted wounds," Tillman pointed out. "Seven penalties [in the first half] and six in one quarter, I don't know if I've ever been at a lacrosse game where someone had six penalties in a quarter, and we had six. You can't expect to win many games doing that."
Then again, not many offenses can rely on a player like Kelly to will them to victory.
"He's so poised," Tillman said of Kelly. "He can beat you with and without the ball. He makes guys around him better. Even today, he gets caught on defense, which we practice every week, and you have total confidence that he can do a great job there. If there's a better player out there, I haven't seen him. I'm certainly not trying to promote our guys because that's not really what we do. But I haven't seen anybody that has a bigger impact on any team, and we've seen some good ones."
Rutgers coach Brian Brecht was left impressed by Kelly.
"Best kid on the field," he said. "He's a talented player. He certainly made us pay. Four and four? Wish we could have contained him a little bit more in a one-goal game."
Mazzone paced the Scarlet Knights (8-4, 1-2) with three goals and one assist, and senior attackman Jules Heningburg added two goals and two assists.
Rutgers 0 5 3 2 — 10
Maryland 4 1 3 3 — 11
Goals: R—Mazzone 3, Heningburg 2, Mullins 2, Rose 2, Coyne; M—Kelly 4, Fairman 3, Bernhardt 2, DeMaio, Rotanz. Assists: R—Heningburg 2, Christiano, Gallagher, Mazzone, Mullins, Rose; M—Kelly 4, Shockey, Wisnauskas. Saves: R—Edelmann 11; M—Morris 10.