After surrendering a season-high 16 goals to Johns Hopkins in Friday night's semifinal, Maryland's defense turned in one of its best performances of the season Sunday in the Big Ten women's lacrosse tournament championship.
The No. 1 Terps stifled a dangerous Northwestern attack that tested them — especially early — and goalie Megan Taylor made 16 saves as they won their second straight Big Ten title, 14-6, at their Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex.
As the only undefeated team in Division I, the Terps (19-0) certainly will be the No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament when the bracket is announced Sunday night. This will be the fifth straight year that Maryland will be seeded first as it goes for its 14th national championship and third in four years beginning next weekend.
Senior midfielder Zoe Stukenberg said it was just a matter of playing better team defense for the Terps to win their eighth conference title in nine years.
"Today compared to our last game, we just did a good job of we were talking more, we were sliding better, we were sliding early. We had each others' back. I thought we played a little individual on Friday and I thought today was more team defense and we kind of set Megan up to have more saves and I thought Megan Taylor had an outstanding game as always," the Marriotts Ridge graduate said.
Third-seeded Northwestern (10-9), which upset No. 5 and second-seeded Penn State, 12-11, in Friday's semifinal, dominated possession early and Taylor, a Glenelg graduate, saved three shots in the first 10 minutes to help the Terps open the game with a 4-0 run.
In a rematch of last year's Big Ten title game, the Wildcats outshot the Terps 32-30, but Maryland's defense — starters Nadine Hadnagy, Morgan Torggler (Severna Park), Julia Braig (St. Paul's) and Meghan Doherty (Mount Hebron), as well as Alex McKay (Marriotts Ridge) and Lizzie Colson (Manchester Valley) and midfielders Stukenberg and Jen Giles (Mount Hebron) — fought off the Wildcats' attack for long stretches even when they did manage to score.
Hadnagy held Northwestern's top scorer Christina Esposito, who came in with 43 goals, to one goal and two assists.
"Nadine played Esposito really well today," Terps coach Cathy Reese said. "She's such a great defender and is the core anchor of our defense with that, and I thought defensively we got our help where they needed to be. Northwestern is tough. They generate a lot of shots, but we were able to limit the ones right in front of Meg."
While Maryland got off to the hot start with goals from Caroline Steele (Severn), Brindi Griffin (McDonogh), Taylor Hensh (Marriotts Ridge) and Kali Hartshorn, the attack didn't really get rolling until the second half.
Taking a 6-4 lead into the break against a physical Northwestern team that committed 39 fouls, the Terps turned the ball over twice in their attacking end early in the second half, but the defense held as Taylor made three saves in the first six minutes. After her third save, Caroline Wannen fed Stukenberg cutting across in front for a shot back into the high far corner, sparking a five-goal run in just over four minutes.
Steele, the tournament Most Valuable Player, scored three of the next four goals, as the Terps ran their lead to 11-4. Megan Whittle (McDonogh) also had a goal during the spurt. Wannen had two of her three assists in the run.
"First half felt a little stagnant, a little messy," Stukenberg said of the Terps offense. "There were some uncharacteristic drops on everyone's part. ... Things weren't flowing. Our passes weren't connecting. I think in the second half ... we had a really good game plan to try to incorporate the people behind more, because when they had that zone, they were able to clog up the space so well in the first half and I think in the second half, by utilizing Wannen and Caroline Steele, Brindi and Kali from behind, we were able to open up those lanes from the top."
The Terps also helped themselves by winning more of the draws than they did in the regular-season 18-9 win over Northwestern 10 days earlier. With Shelby Fredericks, who averages 8.4 draw controls per game, the Wildcats won 22 of 36 in that meeting. Sunday, however, Stukenberg and Hartshorn matched her, as all three won five draws and the Terps finished with a 12-10 advantage.
Taylor, Stukenberg, Hadnagy and Whittle were also named to the all-tournament team, as were Johns Hopkins' Shannon Fitzgerald and Haley Schweizer.
The Terps have a 14-6 lead in the series with Northwestern, which they have met in post season — conference or NCAA tournament — seven of the past eight years.
NW 4 2 -- 6
MD 6 8 -- 14
Goals: NW—Beardsley 2, Espositio, Stroup, Elder, She.Nesselbush; MD—Steele 4, Hartshorn 3, Stukenberg 3, Whittle, Giles, Hensh, Griffin. Assists: NW—Esposito 2, Fredericks; MD—Giles 3, Wannen 3, Whittle 2, Hartshorn, Stukenberg. Saves: NW—Weisse 6; MD—Taylor 16.