The Terps had won 56 straight regular-season games before falling to the Tar Heels, 16-15, in overtime on Saturday. They hadn’t lost a regular-season game since 2014, when redshirt senior Alex McKay was a freshman.
Of course, the loss was “more alarming” for so many players who had never experienced a regular-season loss, said Terps coach Cathy Reese, but it was also a learning experience for a young team still working to come together.
“It’s one of these things where the world’s not ending. We don’t need to reinvent the sport of lacrosse,” Reese said. “We had a tough stretch. You play Florida on the road in game two, you play North Carolina on the road in game three, both of which are really good teams. It was a battle [Saturday]. We competed hard. We didn’t do everything as well as we would have liked, but that’s what February lacrosse is for — to learn this stuff, so you can keep getting better as you go through.”
A week earlier, the Terps pulled out a 16-14 win at No. 3 Florida, but against the No. 8 Tar Heels, they gave up two goals in the final 3:51 of regulation and Marie McCool’s game-winner 43 seconds into overtime.
The loss cost the defending national champion Terps the No. 1 ranking as they dropped to No. 4 in the Inside Lacrosse media poll and to No. 2 in the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association poll.
While the Terps’ experienced attack averages 16.33 goals per game, the young defense allows 12.33, a number they’ll have to cut down on. Last year’s National Goalie of the Year, Megan Taylor (Glenelg), is a great anchor for the defense, but she can’t stop everything when attackers are open in front of the cage as McCool was for the game-winner Sunday.
Reese said two things broke down on the defensive end against North Carolina: communication and second slides.
“We got our first slides where we need to go, but our second ones were late,” she said. “Carolina did a nice job of moving off ball, too, to make it a little more difficult for us, but we need to make sure that second person gets there. Maybe it will help when our communication gets better. Maybe we’ll be able to get there on time. That was why some of these shots were wide open on Meg T, and that obviously isn’t what we would want to have happen.”
The Terps haven’t faced an early schedule this tough since 2013 when they played No. 2 Syracuse and No. 4 Duke in their second and third games.
“Sometimes it’s about experience and playing with each other and getting used to each other and what we’re good at and what we’re not,” Reese said. “And when you play two top-10 opponents back-to-back weekends and both on the road, we’re diving in. It’s not like we get to work our way up to that. It’s tough on a team that’s going to be challenged right off the bat. We haven’t had that opportunity to grow.”
Having the Tar Heels on the schedule so early is always a challenge. With much more experienced teams, the Terps beat North Carolina 13-11, 8-7 and 13-10 the past three seasons within the first three games of the season. Since Maryland left the Atlantic Coast Conference for the Big Ten in 2014, those games have always been early, but Reese wouldn’t trade them.
Maryland leads the series, 25-14 although the Tar Heels have been catching up in the past five years. The Terps, which have won three of the past four national championships, have lost only five games since the start of the 2013 season and four of them have been to the Tar Heels, including the 2016 national championship game — the previous time Maryland lost — and the triple-overtime 2013 national championship.
“That game is such a competitive rivalry, I can’t imagine not playing them,” Reese said. “Two [of those four losses] were in overtime, so those games could go either way. We’re just two of those teams that you could play each other a certain number of times and the wins will split. It’s such great competition. They’re such a talented team and just for us, exploited some weaknesses. That’s what you look for as a coach in February, to help show what else we can do, that we need to get better. And they for sure did that.”
The Terps (2-1) aim to bounce back Wednesday when they host UMBC. They also host Hofstra on Saturday before hitting the road for another top-10 showdown when they play at No. 7 Syracuse on March 11.