EAST HARTFORD, CONN. — By Alex Rode’s standards, Monday’s NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse national championship game was not his best performance in net, as third-seeded Maryland’s high-powered offense scored 16 goals against him.
Virginia’s senior goaltender wanted to get one back for his teammates, at the highest stage, in the most important moment.
With the Cavaliers leading by just one goal with less than 11 seconds to play, Maryland’s Luke Wierman won the faceoff and sprinted on a beeline toward Virginia’s net as the remaining seconds ticked away. Each of the announced 14,816 fans in the stands at Rentschler Field knew the ball rocking back-and-forth in Wierman’s stick was headed toward Rode, the result of the shot being either a national championship for Virginia, or a chance to keep playing for Maryland.
The result turned out to be outcome No. 1. Wierman launched a shot from a few feet away, and the ball ricocheted off of Rode’s chest. Virginia’s Cole Kastner recovered the ground ball and launched it high into the sky as the buzzer sounded, and the Cavaliers stormed the field.
Virginia (13-4), champions in 2019 before being sidelined in 2020 as COVID-19 halted spring sports around the country, was atop the lacrosse world for the seventh time in program history with a 17-16 win over previously unbeaten Maryland (15-1).
The Terps were seeking their first perfect season since 1973, when they went 10-0, and the first in Division I since Virginia went 17-0 in 2006.
“I had a rough day, it wasn’t my best day in goal,” Rode said. “[Wierman] took a shot, I was a little nervous, I thought I owed my team a couple. Luckily it hit me in the body.”
Said Virginia freshman Connor Shellenberger, who tied senior Matt Moore with a team-high four goals: “Alex Rode is about as clutch as a lacrosse player gets. He’s a winner.”
Maryland trailed by five goals in the fourth quarter and was limited offensively for much of the second half. The Terps finally caught fire with six minutes left.
Logan Wisnauskas scored with 6:13 left in the fourth to cut Virginia’s lead to four. Daniel Maltz scored 10 seconds later to cut it to three. Bubba Fairman notched Maryland’s third goal in a minute span at the 5:13 mark to pull the Terps within two, and Anthony DeMaio scored just over a minute later to make it a one-score game.
The Terps were alive. It just wasn’t enough.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Maryland junior defender Brett Makar said. “We talked about giving counter-punches and being able to answer all week. Credit to them; when they got momentum, they took advantage of it. I was super proud of our guys for the way we fought back, but in a game like that, it comes down to the littlest thing. I know right now for me personally, and I know a lot of the guys feel the same way, but you think about the one missed ground ball or the one failed clear. In a game like that, it really comes down to the smallest thing.”
Moore scored his fourth goal of the game with 3:35 remaining to give the Cavaliers 17-15 lead and some breathing room. Maryland cut the lead to just one on DeMaio’s last-second goal, though Moore’s late tally gave the Cavaliers the insurance they needed to fend off any sort of Terps run.
“Matt Moore’s performance was heroic,” Virginia coach Lars Tiffany said. “It’s absolutely heroic.”
The Cavaliers used a pair of five-goal runs to take control of the game — one that stretched between the first and second quarters that helped the Cavaliers take a 9-7 lead into halftime, and a second, more crucial, run in between the third and fourth quarters to pull away from the Terps a bit.
Maryland trailed by two goals at halftime but outscored Virginia 4-2 in the first six minutes of the third, with three goals from Wisnauskas to tie the game at 11 with 9:11 to go in the quarter.
“Coach said in the huddle we were in that position before against Hopkins, down,” Wisnauskas said. “We just had to keep battling. Luke did an awesome job in the middle of the field getting us some possessions in the second half. We just kept moving the ball, kept moving our feet and just getting good opportunities. I feel like that’s what kind of set us up.”
The Cavaliers responded with three goals to end the third — one from Peter Garno, one from Shellenberger and a third from Moore — to take a 14-11 lead into the final quarter. Shellenberger and Moore each scored in the opening minutes to extend Virginia’s lead to five before Maryland’s fourth-quarter run.
The final score — which tied Maryland’s 20-13 victory over Navy in 1975 for the most goals ever in a national championship game — was not necessarily unexpected. Maryland averaged the second-most goals in Division I this season; Virginia the third-most. The Terps outshot Virginia 49-39, but the Cavaliers were slightly more efficient, with 74% of their shots on goal compared with 71% for Maryland.
“Man, I just love these guys to death,” said Terps coach John Tillman, who fell to 24-9 in the NCAA tournament, including 1-5 in the national championship game. “I’m just disappointed that time is running out here, so I’m going to try to soak up as much time as I can with them, tell them how much I love them and how proud I am. I think if you’re a Maryland fan today, you’re disappointed in the ending, but you won’t be disappointed with the effort and heart and toughness and character of this group.”
Virginia midfielder Petey LaSalla won 21 of 37 faceoffs. Maryland opened the game with Justin Shockey taking faceoffs; he went 2-for-7 and was replaced in the second quarter by Wierman, who won 14 of 30 for the remainder of the game.
Wisnauskas led Maryland with five goals, and senior Jared Bernhardt — a finalist for the Tewaarton Award — scored twice but was held off the scoreboard in the second half. Virginia redshirt sophomore Cade Saustad was assigned to defend Bernhardt — who set the record for the most career goals in NCAA tournament games with 33, breaking Frank Urso’s record of 32, which had stood since 1976 — for much of the game.
“Jared Bernhardt is the best player in the game for the last 10 to 20 years,” Tiffany said. “What Jared Bernhardt does to opposing defenses is put you in such a bind ... when he’s going to the goal, there’s nobody tougher to stop.”
Said Tillman: “I haven’t seen a better player out there, and as good a player as he is, he’s a better person, and thankful that he came back. ... I think Jared showed you today he is an absolute winner, and I think the way he came back and focused, he made everybody else around him better, and again, just added to the legacy of No. 1.”
Tiffany, in his fifth season as Virginia’s coach, is now a two-time national champion. So are a good chunk of players who were on the roster back in 2019.
The Cavaliers have the tools to contend again next year, namely Moore and Shellenberger, who will return for their sophomore and senior seasons, respectively.
But that’s next year. This year ended with Tiffany a winner again, sprinting around the turf with his daughter by his side, and a wooden lacrosse stick in his hand.
What’s left? A bus ride back to Virginia with his team. As winners.
“I can’t wait for this 10-hour bus ride home,” Tiffany said. “Once we get to Charlottesville and get off that bus, I know it will never be the same. It will be over ... saying goodbye is going to be hard.”
Baltimore Sun staff contributed to this article.