The top-seeded Terps coughed up a two-goal lead in the fourth quarter before junior midfielder Connor Kelly scored his third and final goal to hold off No. 5 seed Denver, 9-8, in an NCAA Division I tournament semifinal at Gillette Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
An announced 30,530 — the 13th-largest crowd to attend the semifinals — watched Maryland (15-3) continue its pursuit of its first national championship since 1975. The Terps, who have lost in each of their past nine title-game appearances, will meet No. 3 seed Ohio State (16-4) in Monday’s final at 1 p.m. The Buckeyes outlasted unseeded Towson, 11-10, in the earlier semifinal Saturday.
Maryland will make its fifth trip to the title game during coach John Tillman’s seven-year tenure, but Saturday’s game was a struggle. The offense was held to fewer than 10 goals for only the third time this season and took only four shots in the fourth quarter, and Pioneers sophomore goalkeeper Alex Ready made 12 saves.
“They’ve got a great defense,” said Kelly, who led all players with three goals including the eventual game-winner with 8:41 left. “We have a lot of respect for them. They’ve got a lot of lanky guys that can get out to your hands. But we were just trying to play our game.”
The final two minutes saw a wild sequence. Senior attackman Colin Heacock (Boys’ Latin) converted a feed from senior attackman Matt Rambo with 1:28 remaining, but the goal was waved off after an official ruled he had stepped into the crease
“I’m not too sure what really happened,” Heacock said after scoring two goals on nine shots. “It just happened so fast. But the officials did a tremendous job the entire game. So I trust the officials to make the right calls.”
Junior midfielder Connor Donahue then appeared to score the game-tying goal with 9.2 seconds left, but it was also wiped out by a crease violation. The ruling incensed Pioneers coach Bill Tierney and the rest of his coaching staff, but play continued and Maryland ran out the clock.
After expressing his opinion that the sport needs to install a mandatory shot clock and allow players to dive into the crease while taking shots, Tierney hedged on whether he disagreed with the ruling that erased Donahue’s goal.
“We’ll see,” he said. “If he landed in the crease, then it was the right call. If he didn’t, it was the wrong call. But I just think our game is kind of silly right now without those two rules.”
Noting how narrow the win was and how fortunate the Terps were, Tillman said, “That game could have gone anybody’s way. It literally was a game of inches. If you look at those last two plays, I thought the refs made the right calls on both of them. But that’s how close that game was.”
In a game that pitted two of the five Tewaaraton Award finalists, both labored mightily. Rambo was limited to one goal on four shots and one assist by Denver sophomore defenseman Dylan Gaines. Rambo, who broke a tie with former attackman Joe Walters for the program record in career goals with 154, produced his lowest output since he had one assist in an 8-6 win over Penn State on May 4 in a Big Ten tournament semifinal.
Pioneers junior faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste won only 11 of 21 draws and picked up six ground balls. Baptiste had entered the game winning 89.7 percent of his faceoffs in the postseason with 31 ground balls, but was stymied by the Maryland duo of sophomore Austin Henningsen (7-for-15, one ground ball) and senior Jon Garino Jr. (3-for-6, one ground ball).
Tillman also cited the play of junior long-stick midfielder Matt Neufeldt (six ground balls) and senior short-stick defensive midfielder Nick Manis (three ground balls).
“We thought maybe we could get to 40 percent, but we thought we were going to have to do it with a couple of different guys and obviously with some help from the wings,” Tillman said. “I think we got close to 50, but I thought our wing play was pretty good. So I think that helped.”