After barely escaping its regular-season meeting with Penn State in overtime, the Maryland men's lacrosse team quickly put the possibility of another nerve-wracking game to rest.
The No. 3 Terps scored the first six goals and maintained a gap that never got closer than three goals the rest of the way en route to a 16-9 victory over the No. 18 Nittany Lions in a Big Ten tournament semifinal at Homewood Field Thursday night.
With the victory, Maryland, the top seed in the tournament, improved to 13-2, extended its winning streak to 12, and will play in Saturday's title game at 6 p.m.
Penn State, the No. 4 seed, fell to 8-7 after suffering its fourth loss in its past five games.
On April 10, the Terps overcame an 8-4 deficit in the second quarter and got a goal from senior midfielder Bryan Cole with 43 seconds left in overtime to escape University Park, Pa., with an 11-10 win. There was no such suspense Thursday, although coach John Tillman was not pleased with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on junior attackman Matt Rambo that ignited a Nittany Lions' 3-0 run to cut into the Terps' 6-0 lead.
"Obviously, a great start for us," Tillman said. "Disappointed how after being up 6-0 we reacted to a certain situation. But credit to our guys, it was kind of a game of runs. … Our guys to be able to weather the storm was big for us."
Rambo led all scorers with five points on three goals and two assists. Sophomore midfielder Connor Kelly scored four goals, and junior attackman Colin Heacock (Boys' Latin) chipped in three goals and one assist.
The Terps were also buoyed by the play of their second midfield. Senior Pat Young recorded two goals and one assist, redshirt sophomore Lucas Gradinger scored twice, and redshirt sophomore Tim Rotanz added two assists. Senior Tyler Brooke, who got a few runs with the second line, finished with an assist.
"We've been preaching all year that we like both lines," Kelly said of the team's "Red" and "Gold" midfields. "… We just focus on having great chemistry on both lines, and it's just huge. That's what you need going into this stretch of the year."
The Terps' opening 6-0 run began when Kelly collected his own rebound and scored over Penn State freshman goalie Will Schreiner with 13:16 left in the first quarter.
That's when Rambo took over. He sandwiched a pair of goals around a tally from senior midfielder Pat Young and then assisted on goals from Heacock and junior attackman Dylan Maltz.
But the penalty on Rambo – who appeared to protest a no-call after freshman faceoff specialist Will Bonaparte was knocked to the turf – with 5:11 remaining sparked the Nittany Lions, who went on a 3-0 run spanning the first two quarters.
Maryland regained momentum on a pretty tic-tac-toe play in transition with the ball circulating from senior midfielder Bryan Cole to Maltz to Heacock for a goal from the right crease, and the Terps maintained a comfortable margin for the rest of the game.
Redshirt senior Kyle Bernlohr made a game-high 12 saves, and sophomore defenseman Mac Pons limited Grant Ament to one goal after the Penn State freshman attackman finished with two goals and one assist in their first meeting.
"We had to change some things up, re-evaluate ourselves based on the way they can score in bunches," said Bernlohr, who has stopped 26 shots in two contests with the Nittany Lions. "I think at one point in the game, it was 10-3 and the next thing you know, it was 10-7. I think above all, we were just focusing on stopping those breaks and runs. They were still able to get them, but at the end of the day, we were just worried about us and playing our game."
Junior attackman Nick Aponte paced Penn State with four goals, and senior attackman T.J. Sanders contributed one goal and two assists. But coach Jeff Tambroni said falling into their game-opening 6-0 hole proved to be too much.
"Going down 6-0 set the tone for the game," he said. "They could play the style and pace that is much more conducive to a Maryland lacrosse team. Penn State had to really climb and push with a lot more urgency than we would have liked from the opening minutes. I think if we had a one-goal deficit in the first quarter, it might have been easier to gain some confidence and rhythm. But I looked up at the scoreboard at one point and it was 6-0 and we had two possessions, and you're not going to win a lot of lacrosse games, certainly not in the Big Ten and not against Maryland."
An earlier version of this story said Saturday's championship game is at 1 p.m. The championship game at Homewood Field is at 6 p.m.